Horror on the Horizon

Another year just begun, and the same old adage: Quot libros, quam breve tempus.

Here are 15 books scheduled for release in 2024 that I can’t wait to read (unless otherwise noted, descriptions are drawn from each book’s dedicated Amazon page).

 

The Haunting of Velkwood by Gwendolyn Kiste (S&S/Saga Press, March 5th)

From Bram Stoker Award­–winning author Gwendolyn Kiste comes a chilling novel about three childhood friends who miraculously survive the night everyone in their suburban hometown turned into ghosts—perfect for fans of Yellowjackets.

 

The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones (S&S/Saga Press, March 26th)

The final installment in the most lauded trilogy in the history of horror novels picks up four years after Don’t Fear the Reaper as Jade returns to Proofrock, Idaho, to build a life after the years of sacrifice—only to find the Lake Witch is waiting for her in New York Times bestselling author Stephen Graham Jones’s finale.

 

A Better World by Sarah Langan (Atria Books, April 9th)

The author of Good Neighbors, “one of the creepiest, most unnerving deconstructions of American suburbia I’ve ever read” (NPR), returns with a cunning, out-of-the-box satirical thriller about a family’s odyssey into an exclusive enclave for the wealthy that might not be as ideal as it seems.

 

Midwestern Gothic by Scott Thomas (Inkshares, April 30th)

Close your eyes. Picture open plains, wheat stalks swaying gently in the wind. Picture the quaint Main Street of a one-stoplight town. Picture endless summers on sunny, tranquil lakes. With four provocative novellas, Kill Creek author and Kansas native Scott Thomas takes a hatchet to the idyllic tropes of the American heartland.

 

No One is Safe! by Phillip Fracassi (Lethe Press, April)

NO ONE IS SAFE presents fourteen stories of macabre, pulpy terror; a book filled with futuristic noir mysteries, science fiction thrillers, alien invasions, and old-school horror tales that will keep you up late into the night. Inside these covers, you’ll discover haunted dream journals and evil houses, birthday wishes gone wrong, a neighborhood cat that cures any disease, a flesh-eating beach, and mysterious skeletons on a hidden moon base. You’ll meet wise-cracking detectives, suburban vampires, murdered movie stars, and monsters of the deep. And remember—don’t get too attached to the characters you’ll meet on these pages because there’s no holding back in this book. Anything can happen, and no one is safe. Featuring an introduction by Ronald Malfi. [Lethe Press book description]

 

The House That Horror Built by Christina Henry (Berkley, May 14th)

A single mother working in the gothic mansion of a reclusive horror director stumbles upon terrifying secrets in the captivating new novel from the national bestselling author of Good Girls Don’t Die and Horseman.

 

You Like It Darker by Stephen King (Scribner, May 21st)

From legendary storyteller and master of short fiction Stephen King comes an extraordinary new collection of twelve short stories, many never-before-published, and some of his best EVER.

 

Horror Movie by Paul Tremblay (William Morrow, June 11th)

A chilling twist on the “cursed film” genre from the bestselling author of The Pallbearers Club and The Cabin at the End of the World.

 

Incidents Around the House by Josh Malerman (Del Rey, June 25th)

A chilling horror novel about a haunting, told from the perspective of a young girl whose troubled family is targeted by an entity she calls “Other Mommy,” from the New York Times bestselling author of Bird Box.

 

I Was a Teenage Slasher by Stephen Graham Jones (S&S/Saga Press, July 16th)

From New York Times bestselling horror writer Stephen Graham Jones comes a classic slasher story with a twist—perfect for fans of Riley Sager and Grady Hendrix.

 

Witchcraft for Wayward Girls by Grady Hendrix (Berkley, July 16th)

The latest horror comedy from bestseller Hendrix takes readers to a home for teen mothers in 1970s Florida, where five denizens discover latent talents for witchcraft. [Jump Scares book description]

 

Clown in a Cornfield 3: The Church of Frendo by Adam Cesare (HarperCollins, August 20th)

Quinn has just survived yet another bloody run-in with the murderous clown Frendo, but somehow still she knows this won’t be the last. Tired of being hunted and seeing innocent people hurt, Quinn believes the only way to beat the horror is to take justice into her own hands–and stop the Frendo followers herself. Little does she know that this path will take her across cornfields and state lines, to where she will have to face the most dangerous and bloody menace yet: True believers.

 

Crypt of the Moon Spider by Nathan Ballinggrud (Tor Nightfire, August 27th)

Book 1 of the Lunar Gothic Trilogy: a dark and dreamy tale of horror, corruption, and identity spun into the stickiest of webs.

 

Not a Speck of Light by Laird Barron (Bad Hand Books, September 10th)

Bram Stoker Award-winning author Laird Barron returns to the dark and dreadful with his fifth horror collection, which weaves sixteen weird tales into a mosaic of the bloody and the macabre.

 

The Unlikely Affair of the Crawling Razor by Joe R. Lansdale (Subterranean Press, release date TBA)

Edgar Allan Poe’s great private investigator, Auguste Dupin, gets a make-over in this unusual adventure involving a bloody mystery dipped deep in the strange.

A young woman comes to Dupin and his assistant for help concerning her increasingly obsessed brother; obsessed with the dark world that sets alongside our own, where strange creatures dwell and even stranger events occur. A world where our laws of physics are no longer applicable. A world with its own geometry of evil. It’s the place from which all our nightmares spring.

And now that dimensional world, due to spells and sacrifices, is wide open into our own, releasing the deadliest denizen of the dark—The God of the Razor.  It’s a case that will require all of Dupin’s knowledge and the highest courage from his faithful assistant, as they traverse the Parisian streets, as well as the famous Catacombs of skulls and bones, in search of answers. [Subterranean Press book description]

 

For the most comprehensive compendium of pending publications, check out Jump Scares’ 2024’s New Horror Books.

 

Five Faves

I won’t call this a Best Books of 2023 post, because there are too many titles (A Haunting on the Hill and Beware the Woman and The Strange and Spin a Black Yarn and…) that still top my TBR list. But of the new releases that I did read this year, here are my five favorites:

 

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Hendrix’s knack for crafting flawed characters that you can’t help but fear for and cheer for is on full display here. The narrative is at once hilarious, horripilating, and heartwarming, and combines slow-mounting dread with explosions of gonzo horror (two words: Squirrel Nativity). In the devious Pupkin, Hendrix has created the hand-puppet equivalent of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Perfectly plotted and featuring a series of staggering twists, How to Sell a Haunted House is Hendrix’s best novel–at least until his next one is published, because this writer just keeps getting better and better with each release.

 

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

The middle volume of the Indian Lake Trilogy offers the same slasher-film savviness and protagonist sassiness as My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and more. Jones is careful to account for how the survivors of the first book’s climactic massacre have been physically affected and psychologically altered by the experience. The canvas gets larger here (various viewpoint characters are presented), but the time frame (thirty-six blizzardy hours) is condensed, resulting in maximized suspense. An Indigenous serial killer (with a predilection for skinning his victims alive) runs amok in Proofrock, but his monstrosity still manages to elicit reader sympathy, as Jones invokes the horrors of American history. This outsized psycho is a formidable and unforgettable antagonist, but he doesn’t overshadow defiant final girl Jade Daniels, who solidifies her status as one of the greatest horror-novel heroines ever penned.

 

Long Past Midnight by Jonathan Maberry

As a fan of the Pine Deep Trilogy (Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, Bad Moon Rising), I relished the chance to return to the Most Haunted Town in America. This collection of Tales from Pine Deep expands the literary lore of the rural Pennsylvanian community; we get prequel pieces set many years prior to the events of the Trilogy, and sequel stories that dramatize the lingering effects of the nearly cataclysmic Red Wave. The entries are all winners, demonstrating Maberry’s ability as a storyteller and his facility in crossing genres (other characters from Maberry’s prolific catalogue, such as Joe Ledger, are drawn into Pine Deep intrigue). The volume also features a wonderful Author’s Introduction, in which Maberry traces the experiences that shaped him and directly influenced his creation of Pine Deep.

 

Holly by Stephen King

The author’s beloved recurring character, Holly Gibney, finally gets the chance to headline her own novel. She doesn’t falter here, rising to the challenge presented by a disturbing missing-persons case (conducted during the Covid pandemic). Her investigations this time around might not lead her to a superhuman Brady Hartsfield or a supernatural Outsider, but the American Gothic pair of retired professors encountered prove just as harrowing in their own hyper-intellectual way. There are strong echoes of The Silence of the Lambs throughout (and especially in the climax), but the narrative is by no means derivative. This is quintessential King, an absorbing and propulsive story that takes Constant Readers on quite a thrill ride.

 

Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig

Reminiscent of the apocalyptic novels of Stephen King (The Stand, The Tommyknockers) and the dark fantasy epics of Clive Barker (The Great and Secret Show, Galilee), Wendig’s latest effort (concerning a strangely addictive variety of apple whose empowering effects are too good to be true) is an absolute masterpiece. The narrative seamlessly combines elements of murder mystery, body horror, folk horror (including some of the creepiest cultist masks ever imagined), American Gothic horror (small-town prejudices and predations abound), and supernatural horror (involving diabolical bargaining). This book truly has it all: a complex (but expertly executed) plot, unique yet relatable characters, and exquisite, sensuous prose. The only negative comment that can be made about it is that readers might never look at an apple the same way again. Any Best Horror Books of 2023 list that doesn’t laud Black River Orchard should be immediately dismissed. Easily, my favorite read of the year.

 

 

 

Persistently Sinister: The 20th Anniversary Edition of Sara Gran’s Come Closer

Sara Gran’s 2003 novel Come Closer is one of the most revered texts in the modern horror genre. As such, it has long been on my radar, but I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I had never read it until recently. Thankfully, though, Soho Press’s release of a 20th Anniversary Edition of the book prompted me to rectify my extended error.

Gran’s short novel–whose protagonist Amanda believes she is possessed by a ferocious, fanged female demon named Naamah–offers a masterclass in unreliable narration. Has Amanda been genuinely invaded by a force of outside evil, or is she just replete with her own inner demons, someone who finally gives in to her most impish impulses? Amanda attributes a “subtle” seduction to Naamah: “This mental voice is new, it’s a sound you’re not accustomed to hearing in your own head, but it’s not that different either, it’s done a good job of imitating your own silent voice and you like what it’s saying.” But the truest subtlety here might be Gran’s, as the author suggests that the perceived possession could be a delusion–a convenient eschewing of responsibility for all the vice and violence to which Amanda resorts. There is also a crafted ambiguity to the novel’s titular dictate: do these two words stem from Naamah, eager to draw her targeted subject into her demonic embrace, or from the lonely and unsatisfied Amanda, who on a fundamental level welcomes the idea of having “someone to love me, and never leave me alone”?

Come Closer has been hailed widely as one of the most frightening books written over the past two decades. Such buzz perhaps set me up for disappointment, as Amanda’s account proved less exquisitely unnerving than I anticipated. Granted, different readers have different triggers; as a lapsed Catholic, I don’t put much stock in the diabolical and don’t dread the malicious attention of a demon as a more devout believer might. Likewise, I can recognize that this book–in which Amanda loses control over her own body, and frequently awakens from blackouts following Naamah’s bawdy binges to find herself “naked and shivering in bed with a man I had never seen before”–will hit much closer to home with a female audience. That being said, the horror here appears to be compromised somewhat by the diaristic format. Yes, unease steadily mounts as Naamah’s seeming influence over Amanda grows more pronounced, but the sequence of short chapters prevents the narrative from achieving sustained suspense. Undoubtedly, some chilling incidents are presented (Amanda’s attempted drowning of a young girl already struggling to stay afloat; her apparent savaging of an obnoxious newsstand-operator with a boxcutter), yet these other characters are so thinly sketched by Amanda that the reader (this one, at least) fails to find their plight especially terrifying. What I actually found most evocative were the scenes centered on Amanda’s burgeoning psychic powers (byproduct of her demonic possession). She experiences ghostly glimpses of past acts of human depravity, and grows painfully attuned to suffering: “A vintage yellow dress I had saved for special occasions now made me nauseated–its previous owner had been a drunk, and when I wore it I felt my liver burn with cirrhosis.”

There were a couple of aspects of the novel that pleasantly surprised me. First, its dark humor: just as Naamah takes wicked delight in tormenting her host, Gran herself seems to revel in the opportunity to satirize the spiritualist entrepreneurs who attempt to “depossess” Amanda. There is also a strong feminist undercurrent to the narrative. Naamah claims to be the rejected second wife of Adam (the world’s original male), mentored in demonism by Adam’s first wife Lilith, who “wasn’t good enough at all, she wouldn’t lie down and take it, and she wouldn’t do what she was asked or told.” One cannot overlook the fact that a female demon is employed as the possessing entity in this novel, allowing Gran to rework the more rapacious/salacious Pazuzu-inside-Regan dynamics of a canonical text such as The Exorcist.

In hindsight, Gran’s novel neatly aligns with a long tradition of American Gothic fiction. Characters obsessively trying to locate the source of strange noises within the walls of their home hearken back to the narrator’s desperate probing of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Amanda’s suspicion that the doctors she visits are secret Satanists constitutes an unmistakable allusion to Rosemary’s Baby. There’s also a strong Fight Club vibe here, from the squalid neighborhood Amanda first lives in to the mental institution that she finally haunts at book’s end.

The 20th Anniversary Edition includes a new Postscript purporting to be “A Note from the Editors” of 2003’s Come Closer–a device that lends an added air of verisimilitude to the preceding novel. This Postscript also furthers the deliberate ambiguity and boundary-blurring of Amanda’s narrative. “In order to help the afflicted, the ruminating, and the confused,” the Editors state, “we have provided this series of questions and answers to illuminate, educate, and, hopefully, keep readers on the correct path.” But the structuring quickly breaks down, as the responding Editors prove perhaps even more disturbed than those seeking their guidance.

Come Closer might not be the scariest book published in the past twenty years, but it’s surely one of the most satisfying the horror genre has offered. Like the best of Poe’s work, its artful complexity–its vacillation between supernatural and psychological explanation–encourages continuous scrutiny. Ultimately, the book’s enticing title might be interpreted as an open invitation to attentive readers, those willing to expose themselves to utter engrossment.

 

Devilish Details: The 7 Wickedest Inflictions in Dante’s Inferno

For those of you bemoaning this late-November holiday and dreading having to suffer the company of your relatives, just remember: it could always be a lot worse. Dante furnished unnerving reminder of this seven centuries ago in his classic compendium of severe yet suitable punishments. As a Thanksgiving Day special Dispatch from the Macabre Republic, here are my choices for the seven worst, most cursed fates in the Inferno–ones I’d be forever thankful to avoid.

 

7.Torment of the Barrators (Canto XXI)

The Fifth Pouch of the Malebolge combines the worst that the underworld has to offer: passive languishing and active torture. Sinners stew in a “thick and tarry mass” of boiling pitch, and when they surface, gasping for air, they are mercilessly pronged by armed guard-demons. Dante’s image of a cook’s urchins “forc[ing] the meat with hooks / deep down into the pot, that it not float” drives home the point of just how horrid this torment must be.

 

6.Torment of the Arch-Heretics (Canto IX)

In the Sixth Circle of Hell, “a spreading plain / of lamentation and atrocious pain” sports sinner-stuffed sepulchers kindled to a “glowing heat” by scattered flames. Consciousness of claustrophobic internment and the sense of impending roasting–this nightmarish situation reads like something Poe might dream up (cf. “The Pit and the Pendulum”).

 

5.Torment of the Alchemists (Canto IXXIX)

Sinners–“each, from head to foot, spotted with scabs”– within the final patch of the Malebolge scratch themselves furiously yet futilely. No sooner is one scab clawed off than another crusted wound replaces it. Just thinking about the woeful Alchemists obsessing over their maddening, unrelenting itches makes me squirm in my seat.

 

4.Torment of the Sowers of Scandal and Schism (Canto XXVIII)

Clive Barker’s Cenobites seem to trace their ancestry back to the Eighth-Circle, Ninth-Pouch demon that disembowels and dismembers victims with his sword. Dante catalogues woundings of the utmost grotesquerie: one sinner’s face is “opened wide from chin to forelock,” another walks around “with both his hands hacked off,” while a Headless Horseman forerunner carries his own severed head “just like a lantern.”

 

3.Torment of Traitors Against Their Benefactors (Canto XXXIV)

The demons and assorted monsters of the Inferno are awful in their own wrong-punishing right, but imagine being personally tormented for all eternity by Lucifer himself. Such is the fate of Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius, each chewed down on by the “gnashing teeth” of the titanic, Saturn-like Satan (the clawed “emperor of the despondent kingdom” also subjects Judas to flaying: “his back was stripped completely of its hide”). Add in an icy cold climate for bad measure, and this all sounds utterly unbearable to me.

 

2.Torment of the Simonists (Canto XIX) 

These sinners are planted head-down inside holes in rock, with only their lower limbs showing. Their extremities are exposed to extreme torment, as flames are set down on bare feet (the agonizing Simonists’ “joints were writhing with such violence, / they would have severed withes and ropes of grass”). Anyone who has ever scampered across scorching beach sand knows just how terribly tender the soles of the feet are; I can’t stand to think of a protracted suffering of such searing.

 

1.Torment of the Neutrals/Cowardly (Canto III) 

Dante designs a system of increasingly sinister punishment, but my top choice of worst infliction harks back to the very first one detailed in the Inferno. The angels who remained neutral during Lucifer’s war against God, alongside “the sorry souls of those / who lived without disgrace and without praise,” file along as their naked bodies are “stung again, again / by horseflies and by wasps that encircled them.” Maybe it’s just the hopeless insectophobe in me speaking, but this sounds like the most awful and all-too-realistic plight (one that I could actually experience while still alive).

 

Teetering But Not Toppling (Review of Treehouse of Horror XXXIV)

Sunday night brought the latest (lamentably post-October) edition of The Simpsons‘ annual Halloween special. Granted, after thirty-four years, the “Treehouse of Horror” shows signs of serious aging, but there is enough in the episode to convince fans that all the wicked fun isn’t exhausted just yet.

TofHXXXIV opens with “Wild Barts Can’t Be Token,” easily the weakest of the episode’s three segments. A lame satire on the NFT craze, the short is long on unfunny cameos (by the likes of Kylie Jenner, Rob Gronkowski, and Jimmy Fallon) and forced pop cultural references (e.g. Snowpiercer). Digitized Marge massacres a batch of “Cuddle Kittens,” but such scene of cyberspace violence doesn’t strike a distinct note of horror. The passing gag involving “Ralph-House” (a Brundlefly-style monstrosity created when both Ralph and Milhouse are crowded into the same scanning pod) nearly redeems the entire segment, though.

If “Wild Barts” hurtles toward derailment, the subsequent segment, “EI8HT,” quickly gets matters back on track. This vintage Treehouse piece (spoofing classic horror/thriller films such as Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs) also hearkens back cleverly to “Cape Feare,” a canonical Simpsons episode from three decades earlier (here given an alternate ending in which Sideshow Bob succeeds in murdering Bart with a machete). The wackily graphic violence that viewers have come to expect from the annual Halloween episode is in abundant evidence: the flayed Dermott Spuckler’s skinsuit hung on a clothesline, and the meathooked Nelson Muntz’s body looking like a Cenobite centerpiece, to cite a few examples of unrestrained gruesomeness. All told, a bloody entertaining segment.

Finally, in “Lout Break,” Homer precipitates the fall of civilization by consuming a radioactive donut. Apocalypse (or in Homer’s estimation, “me-topia”) results when those who come into close contact with the mutated doofus are infected and promptly morph into crude facsimiles of him. The “Homerizing” of Springfield’s residents via lyncanthrope-like transformation produces a stunning heap of eye candy, as well as some memorable bon mots (“Donut Stu has Diabetes Type 2”). Yes, this COVID-19-evoking parody (Homer’s plague is spread by “burp-borne transmission”) might be deemed tasteless and done-too-soon by certain viewers, but there is no denying the humor permeating the segment’s bonkers scenario.

An uneven but ultimately enjoyable episode, TofHXXXIV keeps the weathered Treehouse intact for another season. It also furnishes a reminder that The Simpsons’ Halloween special works best when it plays off of iconic horror properties and not when it gets caught up with offering snide commentary on modern (techno)cultural trends. Riffing on the horrific always was, and still remains, the key to providing terrific fare.

 

Halloween Ubiquity III

For those refusing to make the turn toward the Season to Be Jolly just yet, here is some October overflow to immerse in:

 

The Pumpkinrot blog keeps keepin’ Halloween alive with a heap of holiday-related eye candy

 

The Lineup examines tricky treats: Halloween Candy Tampering: Fact or Urban Legend?

 

Pumpkin-carver extraordinaire Adam Bierton creates a tentacular spectacle in the New York Botanical Garden

 

Tor.com assembles a cast of the best out-casters: It’s an Excellent Day to Rank Our Favorite Fictional Exorcists

 

Crime Reads probes the phobias of leading literary terrorizers: What Are Thriller Authors Truly Afraid Of?

 

Bloody Disgusting props up supreme cinematic examples of a seasonal icon: Harbingers of Autumn: Six of the Scariest Scarecrows in Horror Films

 

The WWE gets down with Halloween in the filmic short Boogey Night:

 

The Lovecraft eZine Podcast offers further eldritch fellowship with its annual Halloween episode:

 

The always-bewitching Christine McConnell continues to practice her craft:

 

Practical Peculiarities helps party planners get the jump on next Halloween by hearkening back to the 1920s:

 

“Just Take One”

Here’s a brand new poem–an impish take on impersonal systems of Halloween candy handout.

 

Just Take One

By Joe Nazare

 

Beneath the porchlight’s warm harvest moon glow,
A cauldron of a candy bowl sits brimming,
Luring nocturnal beggars from the thoroughfare.
The arrangement is annotated by a weathered plank
With dripping red letters, spatter accented,
Imploring the costumed to remain honorable.
That sign I read as invitation, not limitation,
So now I crouch down low, chocolate-cloaked,
My musk masked by the saccharine reek.
All awful hunger this All Hallows Eve,
I await the unwitting plunge of grubby mitt,
Relish this singular opportunity to satisfy my meat tooth.

 

 

“The Day After Halloween”

On the night before Halloween, here’s “The Day After Halloween”–a short story that was first published in the 2011 anthology Jack-o’-Spec: Tales of Halloween and Fantasy.

 

The Day After Halloween

By Joe Nazare

 

Night, like no other. October’s closing ceremony.

Drew McCormack stands gazing out from his front porch, joined only by the uncarved pumpkin propped on the gray wooden ledge. Curling his forearm to read his wristwatch, he sees that just two minutes have passed since last check. 9:48—which he once again translates to LATE.

“Dammit, Robbie,” he grumbles, but really he’s cursing himself. He should never have let the boy go out tonight.

Originally, he balked at the idea of Robbie heading out alone. It was too dangerous—too many up-to-no-gooders no doubt finding welcomed cover in nightfall. But Robbie was determined to hit up some houses. With oversized pillowcase already in hand, he implored his father to trust him. He was going to be fifteen years old, for crying out loud. “Besides,” Robbie clinched the deal, “you need to stay here in case anyone comes.”

Grudgingly, McCormack agreed. But he insisted Robbie stick to the immediate neighborhood. And that he get his butt back home as soon as he filled his makeshift goody-bag. “Be careful,” he called out as the boy hurried off.

That was nearly ninety minutes ago. Now, standing lookout on the porch, McCormack slowly exhales his unease. Rocking his body weight side to side, he vacillates between anxiety and anger. He squelches the urge to go searching for Robbie, realizing that he has no idea what route the boy chose, what house he could be at right now. And McCormack hates the thought of leaving his own home unattended, with so many beggars and mischief-makers surely afoot.

As if on cue, a figure swoops across the sidewalk in front of the house, momentarily framed by the break in the hedgerow. McCormack focuses first on the weapon in hand, a disconcertingly authentic-looking butcher knife. Next he registers the Halloween mask—literally, the wan, stoic visage of Michael Myers. This incarnation of the methodical slasher, though, has launched into an uncharacteristic sprint, a hastening that could signify either flight or pursuit. A frown elongates McCormack’s mouth as he listens to the Dopplering clomp of Michael-mask’s boots; he’s been reminded once more that on this particular night, anything goes.

And it seems like forever since Robbie went.

Meantime McCormack’s outstretched neck has started aching. Vertebrae crackle while he swivels, then tilts back, his head. As his chin thrusts forward, his view naturally lifts skyward. It’s a moonless night, casket-black, and against such a pitch backdrop he can just discern the cirrocumuli. McCormack pictures the inky gossamer strands as a tattered shroud, or a newborn’s caul.

“Anhhh.” He waves a hand in dismissal, wipes away such mental images. This unhallowed evening has given his thoughts a morbid cast. And it really was no time for fancy, not with more practical concerns pressing. The only shape he should be trying to make out is Robbie’s.

Leveling his sightline, McCormack refocuses on the street stretching past his home. Even when devoid of passersby, the scene hums with the anticipation of activity. Constantly, eruptions of disorder feel eyeblink-imminent.

Despite or precisely because of such charged atmosphere, the homes lining the roadway lie quiescent. Case in point: the Franks’ white colonial directly across the street. None of the strung holiday lights shine, the shades are drawn, and the front door looks nailed shut at this late hour. McCormack wonders if Robbie’s itinerary tonight has led him to a series of such sheltered residences. Wonders how much trouble he’s having trying to fill his pillowcase.

The house neighboring the Franks’ on the right, the Millers’, forms another unshining example of introversion. Swaddled in night and silence, it betrays signs of occupancy only via the faint blue flicker leaking through the slats in the shuttered windows of the upstairs bedroom. McCormack imagines the Millers huddled together there, and supposes he could be inside his own living room right now watching the TV as well. Rather than standing sentinel here on the porch and fraying his own nerves. But he had his fill earlier this afternoon. Honestly, he has little stomach for the limited fare dominating the airwaves. Endless repeats of the same horrorshows. Exploitative schlock, all of it.

A banshee shriek pierces the night, rending McCormack’s thoughts. He whips his head to the left, spots the black muscle car screaming up the block. The din of the car’s passengers, whose hellraising yelps mark them as teenagers, is matched only by the music blaring from the radio. The bass sounds as if it’s been raised full-tilt, and pounds steady as a war drum. McCormack fights back queasiness as the noise pulses through him, but still manages to identify what he’s hearing. It’s that “Number One With a Bullet” song that Robbie liked to play ad nauseam on his own stereo, though nowhere near as loud as this.

The only saving grace, McCormack figures, is that this carload of cacophony will soon zoom past earshot. But as if to spite that expectation, the car promptly squeals its brakes. McCormack’s own hands squeeze down in conjunction, into fists so tight that his knuckles feel like they might erupt from the skin. Fighting the tremble mounting in his right arm, he braces for confrontation.

The car veers from its path down the center of the roadway, effortlessly jumping the far curb. Mouth agape, McCormack watches the bat-wielding passenger riding shotgun stretch his torso out the open window. More thug than slugger, the teen executes a single, booming swing that obliterates the Franks’ curbside mailbox. Gathering speed even as it sacrifices traction, the car continues in a diagonal vector across the Franks’ and then the Millers’ property. A four-wheeled rape of nature, it mows down flowers and tramples Walt Miller’s perennially envied rosebushes. The driver spins the wheel, and the fishtailing vehicle trenches what look like brown quotation marks in the lawn. Engine growling, the car then accelerates back onto the blacktop and the whooping teens speed off in the same direction from which they came.  In all, the blitzkrieg has lasted less than fifteen seconds.

His jaw now clenched, McCormack snorts his fury over such wanton destruction. No-good punks, acting as if this day sanctioned mischief.

For years now late-October lawlessness has been a growing problem here in Sedonia, but tonight’s incidents are of a different order altogether. What McCormack just witnessed across the street makes tossed eggs and t.p.’d trees seem like the quaint rituals of a bygone era.  And he knows it’s not just the particularly brazen nature of the present desecration that bothers him; it’s his own inability to do anything about it. And even if he had the temerity to march into the sheriff’s office tomorrow to make a complaint, would anyone really care?

He supposes he should be grateful he hasn’t seen anything worse transpiring. Be thankful he resides in the rural Midwest, since he can only imagine how riotous things must be in the big cities nationwide. In his mind’s eye he envisions all the mummies and skeletons, all the grotesques and other assorted ghouls filling the city streets tonight. He recalls how for decades good citizens way up north in Detroit have battled annual arsonists given to lighting buildings rather than pumpkins. God knows what sort of bonfire must be blazing there this evening.

But all that urban madness lay many miles over in all directions—days away as the crow flies, as it were. His concern right now is much more localized.

He scans the now-lifeless street once more. A small, internal voice chides him to relax, things will work out fine. He tries his best to heed that voice. Maybe he has magnified the cause for concern here. Besides, hasn’t Halloween historically proven a day of needless worry? Parents, don’t let your trick-or-treaters accept apples—madmen are splicing razor blades into them. Don’t let the kids take candy from complete strangers—it could be laced with poison. Or, more recently, the epitome of post-9/11 paranoia: keep your loved ones out of shopping malls on Halloween—terrorists have planted explosives there.

Like some pathetic attempt to douse flagrant thoughts, a soft rain starts falling, trickling onto the porch roof overhead. The precipitation rustles the oaks in McCormack’s front yard, unmooring brittle leaves that fall in graceful kamikaze swirls.

Influenced by such scene, McCormack presumes that the low scratching sound he suddenly hears represents the scurry of wind-nudged leaves across pavement. But the noise continues to morph, until McCormack identifies it as the scuff of sneakers.

He spots them just as they turn up the walkway. Dark sneakers, two pair, sported by the two approaching figures. Both are clad in denim jackets and jeans, their only concession to costume the matching goblin masks covering their faces in pale green deformity. Their lanky frames suggest they are really too old to be trick-or-treating. Nonetheless, they’re the first to venture onto the property tonight, which has McCormack cursing his luck. He should’ve known he wouldn’t get through the evening without any visitors.

The masked duo exchanges whispers while stalking toward the house.  But then wide goblin eyes lift toward the porch, and the pair’s progress falters as they are no doubt surprised to find McCormack stationed outside his front door. He doesn’t even give them a chance to speak, just offers a solemn shake of his head. They are halted in their tracks now, and McCormack can almost intuit the flow of their thoughts—the debate whether or not to accept such dismissal. The standoff, though, lasts only as long as it takes the goblins to give him a good look up and down. Apparently deciding to try their luck elsewhere, the grotesque twins do an about-face and steal back off into the night.

McCormack’s scowl outlasts their departure. Their unrewarded visit is just another reminder of how ill-prepared he is for this day. But he thinks of the chaos that desperate, last-minute shoppers must be raining down upon the town’s lone supermarket tonight. No, he was right to stay clear of that zoo.

Again, the sound of shuffling feet, loud this time, with no pretense to stealth. So the goblins have changed their minds and decided upon mischief. McCormack swallows, readies himself for them.

But his stiffened body sags with relief when he sees who it is, finally: Robbie, with his brimming sack slung over his shoulder, like some Santa who has mixed up his holidays. The cheeks of his ghost-white face puff out air as he hurries the last steps for home.

McCormack inwardly revels at the sight of Robbie’s safe return. His son—it doesn’t seem right to deem him a boy any longer—really is his entire world since Keira’s passing two years ago. Still, he can’t keep the sharpness out of his voice as Robbie mounts the porch.

Dammit, Robbie.”

“I know…I know,” Robbie says between gasps. “It took a lot longer than I thought. I had to go past the neighborhood. Try houses of people we don’t know, houses that looked deserted.”

Chafing once more at his own enforced stasis, McCormack mutters, “Alright, let me see.”

Robbie unshoulders and holds open the stuffed pillowcase. McCormack peers inside, immediately spotting the full bag of Milky Ways lying on top. He glances up at his son, who offers a sheepish grin in return. In the past McCormack has hounded his chocoholic son about eating such junk; now, though, it just seems silly to worry about. These few sweets weren’t going to cause Robbie’s teeth to fall out.

So McCormack doesn’t say anything, merely paws aside the bag of candy bars to make sure the rest of the sack contains more appropriate fare. And sure enough, he finds bottles and bottles of Evian.  Cans of Chef Boyardee macaroni. Cans of soup. Even a tin of Spam. Strictly nonperishables—just as McCormack had instructed.

Robbie stares at his father, clearly hungering approval. “You did a good job,” McCormack tells him, smiling thinly. Meantime he’s happy to note the pink returning to Robbie’s cheeks. “Now hurry up inside. Take all this down to the cellar.”

As his son steps forward to oblige, McCormack realizes what Robbie isn’t toting. “Hey, where’s your—” he starts, then catches himself.  “Never mind.” Because he’s spotted it. The pistol—which forms a matching pair with the one still clutched in McCormack’s right hand—is tucked into the waistband of Robbie’s jeans, partially draped by his unbuttoned flannel shirt.

Before proceeding indoors, Robbie stops to nod at the house’s façade. “We gonna board up the windows tonight?”

McCormack stares at the house, pondering, then shakes his head. “Not tonight.” Worry has drained him; any extra fortifications will have to wait.

“Go on, I’m right behind you,” he tells Robbie. He stops, though, and doubles back to the front of the porch. Sweeps the pumpkin up into the crook of his arm. Waste not…

Before he can cross over to the doorway, he feels a subtle breeze wafting across the back of his neck. Despite the unseasonable balminess of this October-terminating night, he shivers.

Instinctively, he turns his head left, telescoping his gaze toward the far western horizon. It’s faint from this great distance: an orangey glow radiating up against the black vault of sky, like a sunset trying to reverse itself.

McCormack, who for seventeen years up until today has served as a social studies teacher, suddenly can’t help but to recall the Old World roots of Halloween. For the ancient Celts, the harvest festival “Samhain” marked the End of Summer, and was considered a time when the dead crowded the same plane as the living.

So maybe today’s a typical Halloween after all…

Chuckling hollowly, McCormack steps inside to join his son in setting their stores against the long, dread winter on its way.

Of a Darker Color: Nine Frightful Horses/Horsemen in Literature (Besides Irving’s “Legend”)

“Wild Chase”: 1889 painting by Franz Ritter von Stuck

 

The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions, stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole ninefold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols.
–“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

Washington Irving’s classic ghost story brought a certain “galloping Hessian” lasting fame (I track the cropped figure’s long legacy in my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture”), but this equestrian terror doesn’t represent the first or last of his kind. Here are nine more “dark horse” candidates who take readers on a wild and wicked ride. I’ve eschewed the obvious and excluded the apocalyptic quartet in The Book of Revelation; nevertheless the prize literary specimens presented below all succeed in putting the “eek!” in equine:

 

1. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Dante populates the 7th Circle, 1st Ring of Hell with the hybrid creatures of classical myth, the Centaurs. These literal horse-men patrol the banks of Phlegethon (the boiling river of blood in which the Violent Against Their Neighbors are immersed) by the thousands. Renowned hunters while haunting the world above, these “agile beasts” now work to ensure that the agony and indignity of damnation extend eternally, as they aim their bow-and-arrows “at any soul that thrusts / above the blood more than its guilt allots.” With their fiendish reputation (cf. Ovid’s account in Metamorphoses of the orgy of violence they instigate at the wedding feast of Pirithous and Hippodamia), the merciless centaurs make for fitting enforcers in the Dantean underworld of organized punishment.

 

2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Burly, hirsute, vested in verdure colors, and mounted on a steed of strange emerald shade, the title knight cuts a sublimely striking figure as he trots into King Arthur’s court and tempts Sir Gawain into a beheading game. The giant reaches the apex of dreadfulness when–following his axing by Gawain–he casually gathers up his own decapitated head, holds it aloft, and continues to address his stunned audience. The pumpkin-chucker of Sleepy Hollow has nothing on this headless horseman when it comes to constituting a terrifying rider.

 

3. “The Wild Huntsman” by Sir Walter Scott

This 1796 translation/adaptation of the 1778 Gottfried August Bürger poem traces the grim fate of a foolish earl who is spurred on his Sabbath-scorning pursuit of a white stag by a sinister rider atop a steed with “the swarthy hue of hell.” The earl callously tramples man, animal, and nature alike, until he is divinely cursed to be himself chased by a pack of hellhounds and a “ghastly huntsman” with “eyes like midnight lightning.” This “dreadful chase” is decreed to last until the end of days, and the human quarry receives not a moment’s respite from the infernal predators in the meantime: “By day they scoured earth’s caverned space, / At midnight’s witching hour ascend.” The Wild Huntsman’s determinedly tormenting sport makes him one of the most frightening figures in all of legend and literature.

 

4. “Metzengerstein” by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe’s first published tale (1832) centers on a “fiery-colored” steed that appears to have leapt supernaturally into the world from a Gothic tapestry and perhaps contains the transmigrated soul of Baron Frederick Metzengerstein’s enemy, Count von Berflitzling (who perished while trying to rescue his favorite mount from a Metzengerstein-set stable fire). Metzengerstein develops a “perverse attachment” to this volatile creature, but his midnight rides have a cursed, compulsory quality: Poe’s story climaxes with this absolutely horrified horseman (“no sound, save a solitary shriek, escaped form his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through, in the intensity of terror”) destroyed by a mad dash up into his own towering inferno of a palace.

 

5. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

The straits get dire straightaway when Frodo and friends venture beyond the bucolic sanctuary of their Shire. The hobbits are relentlessly menaced by mysterious Black Riders, cloaked/hooded man-shaped figures whose faces are veiled in shadow. These nine horsemen haunt their prey “like phantoms of the woods”; when on foot, they move “like shades of night creeping across the ground.” They are eventually revealed to be supernatural Ringwraiths, eldritch trackers who can “smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it.” These ghostly huntsmen (riding actual black horses bred in Mordor) also wield dark-charmed blades that deliver worse-than-mortal wounds. Sauron’s shock troops form staunch antagonists throughout The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but nowhere do the Nazgul prove more ghoulish than in Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring.

 

6. Firestarter by Stephen King

The explosive climax of King’s 1980 novel begins with a burning stable, from which a group of fear-crazed horses flee in trampling stampede. But the most horrifying horses in Firestarter are of the mental and imagistic variety. Human lab rat Andy McGee uses his uncanny telepathic powers to set a “weird merry-go-round” spinning in the addled mind of his captor, Cap Hollister. The price for exerting such mental domination is an agonizing headache, the onset of which is described as “inexorable as a riderless black horse in a funeral cortege”: “Thud, thud, thud, riderless black horse with red eyes coming down the halls of his mind, ironshod hooves digging up soft gray clods of brain tissue, leaving hoofprints to fill up with mystic crescents of blood.” That is one nightmare of a migraine.

 

7. The Pet by Charles L. Grant 

Christine meets “Metzengerstein” in this 1986 novel by the king of atmospheric horror. Don Boyd is a bullied, beleaguered high schooler who is avenged not by a haunted car but rather an imposing black horse that has impossibly come to life from Don’s bedroom poster. Massive and darkly majestic, this unruly “pet” billows “smoke, maybe steam” from its flared nostrils; its thundering hooves spark “greenfire” of the same colorful blaze as its baleful gaze. Like a four-legged slasher figure (Jason Voorhees spliced with Irving’s Horseman), the stalking stallion dishes out bloody justice to the ostensibly deserving, and the kill scenes are thrillingly scripted by Grant. Even the avowed animal lover Don comes to fear the exacting actions of his shadowy protector, “an ebony ghost flying through the boiling fog.”

 

8. “Dark Carousel” by Joe Hill

Something wicked comes pummeling in Hill’s 2018 tale, which gives an even more harrowing spin to the Bradburian carnival ride. Stationed on a seedy seaside pier, the infernally-glowing, dirge-sounding Wild Wheel features “a uniquely disquieting collection of grotesques” as mounts for riders. Perhaps most striking is the team of white horses (reportedly salvaged from “Cooger’s Carousel of Ten Thousand Lights” following a devastating theme-park fire). Frozen in mid-lunge, the horses display mouths that “gaped as if to shriek,” and eyes that  “seemed to stare blindly at us with terror or rage or madness.” As if not daunting enough in stasis, the strange steeds come to life, vacating the carousel to hunt down the story’s protagonists following certain acts of transgression against the ride and its creepy operator. Wild horses can’t be broken, but human bodies certainly can, and Hill’s narrator recounts the subsequent assault in savage, brain-branding detail.

 

9. “White Mare” by Thana Niveau

“Halloween ain’t some kiddie fun fair” in the Somerset village of Thorpe Morag, where a pair of outsider Americans (who have inherited an English farmhouse from a distant relative) come face-to-mask with unnerving “old customs.” On Halloween night, the locals dress up and act out the “terrible ritual” of the titular spirit horse (figured by a white sheet topped by a grinning animal skull): “The community went from house to house, the Wight Mare and her demon entourage, where offerings would be made to ensure that the door between worlds would close at dawn.” When Dave Barton and his daughter Heather fail to appease the Wight Mare by welcoming in the guisers and offering them food and drink, they lose Heather’s beloved pet Callisto to a Godfather-style bit of mischief. This grisly sacrifice, though, only precipitates some awful payback, since Heather had formed quite an unusual bond with her horse.

 

Any glaring omissions above? Feel free to take the reins and steer another entrant into this macabre derby in the Comments section below.