Mob Scene: Dark Harvest

Many works of fiction have featured an Angry Mob scene, but arguably none have employed one to the same extent as Norman Partridge’s 2006 novel, Dark Harvest. The entire plot of the book concerns such eruption of chaotic, hyperviolent street justice. An anonymous Midwestern town acts out a black ritual every Halloween night: the teenage male population of this rural remote is charged with executing “a pumpkin-headed monster,” the October Boy, preventing the cornfield emigrant from reaching the old brick church in the town square by midnight. This ritualistic slaughter is carried out in the interest of continued community existence: the town secures “what it needs to get through another year of raising prize crops from the same old dirt, what it needs to turn those crops into cold hard cash–the whole deal delivered with a king-sized platter of blessings from above or below, depending on who the hell you listen to.”

Locked in their bedrooms unfed for the five days leading up to Halloween night, the teens are whipped into a feeding frenzy. When finally freed for the Run, they are armed to the teeth, wielding “baseball bats and pitchforks,” “butcher knives and two by fours studded with nails,” “bows and arrows and axe handles and scythes.” The teens thrum with dangerous energy, bashing porch-set jack-o’-lanterns as they roam the streets (warm up for the potential showdown with the October Boy). Armed guards posted outside the town’s market, diner, truck stop, and liquor store cannot always serve to curb the mob’s wild appetites–outbreak of deadly food-looting occurs. A gross violation of the rules, which decree that that the teens stay hungry until the dirty deed of leveling the walking scarecrow is done. Then the grim feast can begin (as demonstrated by a flashback to the prior year’s Run): “They came by the dozen, and they ripped the Boy apart and chowed down on those treats buried inside him.”

Partridge compares the imprisoned (pre-Run) teens to “bulls penned up in tight little chutes.” Hitting the streets at last on Halloween, they are described as “running in packs, like dogs turned loose for the hunt.” The figuration of the mob scene grows even more explicit: “Of course, the October Boy knows what stands between him and the church. Packs of teenagers roaming the street like armed villagers in some old Frankenstein movie.” But apropos of a novel in which crossing “the Line” (marking the town limits) is thematized and the distinction between categorical opposites is deliberately blurred (in “a town where winning is just another name for losing“), Dark Harvest does not stick strictly to the Universal blueprint. For all his repeated likening to Frankenstein’s monster, the October Boy is no dumb, lumbering brute. He exhibits admirable craftiness in outfoxing his antagonists, leaving his Halloween-candy viscera as trail bait, and sneaking into town behind the wheel of a hot rod stolen from one of the teens. Frankenstein’s monster famously gets torched inside the old windmill in the climax of the 1931 movie, but the October Boy uses fire to his own arsonist advantage: he sparks a series of blazes as strategic distractions that draw the teens away from the church (and which ultimately combine to engulf the town in a cataclysmic inferno). The “reaper that grows in the field, the merciless trick with a heart made of treats, the butchering nightmare with the hacksaw face,” the October Boy is the very embodiment of contradiction and terrible turnabout. By the sweet, vengeful end of the novel, he is the persecuted monster who beats (with a last-minute assist from protagonists Pete and Kelly, who have discovered the Run’s sinister twist) the angry mob at its own rampaging game.

 

Jack Splat (Review of Dark Harvest)

Long-delayed, director David Slade’s adaptation of Norman Partridge’s acclaimed novel Dark Harvest has finally been released. The film–which centers on a bloody crop-/community-prosperity ritual that a Midwestern, mid-20th Century town performs every Halloween night–has several admirable aspects. It boasts impressive cinematography: the view of the long, lone road leading from the remote hamlet and cutting through a cornfield gauntlet is nothing short of stunning. The film does a fine job of dramatizing what it’s like to grow up in such a strange hometown, and reaps added emotional impact by making Richie Shepard–younger brother of last year’s celebrated winner of the October 31st bogey-slaying “Run”–the protagonist (the source text focuses on a non-related character, Pete McCormick). Slade’s Dark Harvest also succeeds in planting the seeds of mystery and suspense, delaying the reveal of the town’s defining Big Secret until well into the film.

Unfortunately, though, the shortcomings overshadow the strengths here, and Dark Harvest ends up butchering Partridge’s novel. The film lacks charm; the teen characters are quite coarse in language and behavior, and the kills (not all of which are orchestrated by Sawtooth Jack, the cornfield-grown, pumpkinheaded monstrosity who comes stalking into town on Halloween night) prove exceedingly graphic. Despite its rural locale and year 1963 setting, the film fails to cloak its harsher, more modern sensibilities and feels like it is just wearing Americana drag. Partridge’s riff on Shirley-Jackson-style folk horror had a strong Twilight Zone vibe, whereas Slade’s film adopts the more dubious approach of a splattery pseudo-slasher.

With the October Boy/Sawtooth Jack, Partridge created a truly legendary horror character, a depiction that the film sadly does not capture. Yes, the cinematic Sawtooth’s flaming jack-o-lantern head is impressive, but his body grossly disappoints. Scoliotic and spindly-armed, the figure suggests an extraterrestrial more than an animate scarecrow. He has been stripped of language, emitting only an asthmatic wheeze as he staggers through the neighborhood savaging whoever crosses his path (the awful urgency of the Run–Sawtooth’s desperate quest to reach the town church by midnight–is completely lacking in the film). Worse, this Sawtooth Jack lacks the ingenuity that Partridge invests in the character, the demonstrated ability to outwit overzealous teen antagonists. Such distancing of Sawtooth as a mute, murderous Other renders the attempt to turn him into a sympathetic monster ultimately unconvincing.

No doubt, adapting the novel Dark Harvest was no easy task, and not just because of the special effects required to bring the fantastic Sawtooth to realistic life. Partridge’s richly poetic prose, with its lush similes and extended metaphors, does not translate readily to the screen, so a difference in aesthetic experience for the audience is perhaps inevitable. Still, Slade (working from Michael Gilio’s screenplay) could have adhered more closely to the book. Partridge’s novel is framed as a dramatic monologue, a form of address that naturally draws the reader in; the film might have made more strategic use of voiceover (which is limited to the opening moments), facilitating the delivery of the backstory of this Faustian town and its cabalistic Harvester’s Guild.

An instant classic of Halloween fiction, Partridge’s Dark Harvest is a novel to which fans happily return at October time (I myself have lost count of the number of times I’ve read it). Slade’s watchable but unmemorable film, adversely, is unlikely to enjoy such staying power; its Run promises to be more singular than annual for most viewers.

 

Halloween Screams and Chainsaw Serenades: Variations on the Slasher in the Fiction of Stephen Graham Jones

The following short essay was slated to appear in this month’s special issue of Horror Homeroom, but unfortunately I was unable to meet the deadline for a last-minute revision of the piece. This being Friday the 13th of October, I felt it was the perfect time to post the essay here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic. The 2500-word limit for the special issue precluded coverage of all the primary texts (or extensive analysis of any of them), but as I was composing the essay I realized that it represented a first stab at a potentially much larger project. 

 

Halloween Screams and Chainsaw Serenades: Variations on the Slasher in the Fiction of Stephen Graham Jones

By Joe Nazare

 

Paying at the box office for a slasher, it isn’t about having the conventions you know and love subverted, it’s about having them each satisfied in turn, but built into the story such that you hardly recognize them, such that they feel completely organic to the story. If the slasher can manage to surprise you with the exact same development as every slasher that’s preceded it, then that slasher’s on the way to being a success. This was the magic of the first Scream. It told us what it was doing while it was doing it, and still managed not to show any genre fatigue. Or, really, it took that sense of fatigue—by 1996, Jason and Freddy and Michael were exhausted—and turned it into exuberance.
–Stephen Graham Jones, State of the Slasher Address III (445)

Over the past two decades, no writer has worked more diligently than Stephen Graham Jones to import the slasher film into the realm of fiction. The effort is coextensive with his genre career: the inciting witch-testing-ritual-gone-awry moment in Jones’s first published horror story “Raphael” (Cemetery Dance #55, 2006) anticipates the Stacey Graves storyline of the author’s opus-in-progress, The Indian Lake Trilogy. Rather than rehearse hoary formula, though, Jones consistently produces fresh versions of the slasher narrative, on both structural and thematic levels. The following essay offers an overview of Jones’s slasher oeuvre, charting the evolution of such narratives and exploring the various ends to which Jones has employed the popular cinematic subgenre.

Jones’s initial foray into slasher territory, Demon Theory (completed late-1999, published 2006), appears as much the product of his graduate-school studies as his avowed fascination with the Scream franchise. Ostentatiously postmodern, the book frames itself as “a three-part novelization of the feature film trilogy The Devil Inside, as adapted from D, the unauthorized bestseller inspired by the case notes of Dr. Neider, as recorded in a series of interviews conducted during his residency at Owl Creek Mental Facilities and originally published in the journal P/Q as ‘Narrative, Me-dia, and Allocution: Genre as Mnemonic Device’” (3). The story is presented in film-treatment format, and appended with over 400 nesting/cross-referencing endnotes (many serving up slasher factoids; imagine a VH1 Pop-Up Video episode co-scripted by Vladimir Nabokov and Kevin Williamson). Demon Theory opens in classic slasher fashion: a group of med students are summoned from their Halloween party to a creepy, remote farmhouse. There, “all the beautiful sinners” (19) are stalked and spectacularly dispatched, by a supernatural entity or just some hulking psycho in a gargoyle mask.

Jones’s characters are as genre-conscious as any 90’s-slasher cast, but most of the referentiality is conveyed via omniscient authorial voice: “And Nona left the door open behind her, it would seem. Just past it the attic stairs are lowering m.o.s.—the jeep hatch opening on Neve [Campbell, in Scream] all over again” (87). Such allusive, screenplay-jargoned intrusiveness proves jarring, impeding the reader’s immersion in the story. Indeed, Demon Theory defies accessibility (literally, given its longtime out-of-print status). Jones’s invocation of the esoteric (Swedenborgian mysticism, Cartesian metaphysics) and sprawling range of cultural reference (Euripides’s Medea, Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, The X-Files, and The Usual Suspects inform the mind-bending/reality-blurring/self-erasing narrative just as much as does Halloween or Scream) makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a minimalist by comparison. The slasher elements ultimately get lost amidst the book’s experimental form and encyclopedic excess.1

Conspicuously absent from Jones’s early slashers is the overt depiction of the Native American. Demon Theory makes only passing mention of an “albino-blond Plains Indian” (15)—a child in questionable Halloween costume.2 In Jones’s breakthrough novel, though—2020’s critically-acclaimed/award-amassing The Only Good Indians—Native American characters and culture are brought to the forefront. This time, Jones (qtd. in McRobert) decides to “take Jason up to the reservation, to see how he’d fare” (although Friday the 13th’s Pamela Voorhees arguably makes for a more accurate slasher reference). The “enabling prank or accident, misdeed or crime” (Jones, “State of the Slasher Address” 429) of slasher convention here involves four young Blackfeet men who trespass onto the elders’ section of their reservation and slaughter a herd of elk. Apprehension by the game warden is only the beginning of the hunters’ troubles; as the tenth anniversary of the ill-fated outing approaches, the then-pregnant elk who’d perished while desperately trying to save her unborn calf arises as the supernatural hybrid Elk Head Woman and proceeds to execute her “big revenge arc” (Only 78). The central section of the novel stages (in a Native variation on the victim-gathering slumber party) a “Sweat Lodge Massacre” (131). Then there’s Denorah, the thirteen-year-old daughter of one of the hunters, who has playfully dubbed her “Finals Girl, […] ever since she was his lucky charm when she was four and he was watching her in June, during the NBA finals” (173). A basketball prodigy, the final girl Denorah’s climactic showdown with Elk Head Woman (shapeshifted into human appearance) transpires on a makeshift court—an epic contest of “one-on-one, which is a game of slashing, of stopping and popping” (262). A fierce competitor (with the mindset, “you come at a reservation girl, bring a box of band-aids” [291]), Denorah eventually triumphs not due to feistiness or physical prowess, but because she chooses to break the grim cycle of violence and vengeance.3

The Only Good Indians furnishes a portrait of modern Native existence, both on the reservation and within the wider surround of a racism-tainted America. But Jones also uses this slasher narrative as a vehicle of intertextual dialogue with one of the horror genre’s most totemic figures and canonical texts: Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Both novels thematize the process/purpose of storytelling, and, tellingly, the homosocial groups (Jones’s hunting party; Straub’s Chowder Society) haunted by vengeful female shapeshifters both include characters named Lewis and Ricky. Straub’s approach, though, smacks of cultural appropriation, a plundering of indigenous culture that props up a figure of Native American spiritualism as a manifestation (in the “real world” of the novel) of sinister myth. Inherently and unremittingly evil, Eva Galli the Manitou is always the terrible Other.4 Jones’s Elk Head Woman is also fiendish and devious in her outright assaults and psychologically-tormenting attempts to get each male adversary to “tear down his own life” (98), but her maternal instincts are admirable and undying vindictiveness understandable. Akin to Pamela Voorhees’ indiscriminate killing of camp counselors (a “disproportionate response” that evokes the final girl, “the built-in governor on the slasher’s cycle of violence” [Jones, “Let’s All”]), Elk Head Woman just gets carried away in her bloody quest for justice. Throughout the narrative, Jones interpolates passages from Elk Head Woman’s perspective (written in the second-person, further aligning character and reader), including her late, sympathy-eliciting realization that protecting a beloved calf is “the only thing you’ve ever really wanted to do this whole time, ever since you found yourself suddenly back in the world. Just—your anger, your hate, it was coursing through you so hot, and you got lost in it” (303).5

Finally, The Indian Lake Trilogy (to date, My Heart is a Chainsaw and Don’t Fear the Reaper) presents character-driven narratives that embed the unabashed slasherphilia within the protagonist’s POV. Both books illustrate Jones’s determination not just to propagate but rather to interrogate the final girl figure first codified by Carol J. Clover in her study Men, Women, and Chainsaws.6 When slasher savant Jade Daniels detects a cycle of violence revving up around her in Chainsaw, she attempts to groom newcomer Letha Mondragon—whom she identifies as the supreme embodiment of final-girl goodness—as a combatant. Jade’s instructive inclinations speak to her own inability to envision herself as a final girl; wounded self-image causes her to deem herself too impure, too immoral (the “festering poison” inside her has led her to “stay up late praying to Craven and Carpenter to send one of their savage angels down” [31] onto her Idaho hometown). The narrative reveals that slashers aren’t merely the “goggles” (50) coloring Jade’s teenage worldview but a “cloak of protective armor” (102) fortifying her against her own loneliness, her alienating community, and most of all, her drunken, abusive father Tab. Just as Jones deftly juxtaposes slasher types (the Golden Age “supernatural slasher […] with Michael and Jason and Freddy and Chucky” (109); the Scream era revenge-driven murder mystery), he dramatizes how Jade is plagued by predators both familial and uncanny. Via rousing acts of heroism, Jade ultimately assumes the final girl role, standing up to the bogeyman in her homelife as well as the slasher hellbent on creating an Indian Lake bloodbath.

As perhaps best evinced by Jade (with her wonderfully sardonic remarks and penchant for horror-honoring pranks as a highschooler), humor is a key element of Jones’s various slasher narratives. Jones is not averse to poking fun at the slasher as he obviates its conventions, but the author never entrenches himself in a position of parodic distance. He demonstrates a sincere appreciation of what the final girl, the slasher figure, and the formula overall has to offer. The bloody valentines that Jones sends out year after year (further variants—the conclusion to the Indian Lake Trilogy and the standalone I Was a Teenage Slasher—are forthcoming) represent more than just personal love letters. They testify to the positive cultural values emanating from a subgenre oft-dismissed as superficial at best, misogynistic at worst. Like Jade’s, Jones’s heart is a powerful chainsaw; the author’s slasher-film affinity has enabled him to carve out a rip-roaring body of fiction that enlightens and empowers even as it entertains.

 

NOTES

[1] Jones scales back the postmodernism in his next slasher, 2012’s The Last Final Girl (featuring the Michael-Jackson-masked killer “Billie Jean”). Cinematic formatting—calling attention to camera angles and scene transitions—persists, but the copious annotations are jettisoned, and the citation of slasher-film convention comes predominantly from character dialogue. In retrospect, protagonist Izzy Stratford—a snarky, slasher-savvy, purple-haired, combat-booted, self-described “misfit” (130) who turns in school-essay “meditations on different aspects of horror movies” (136)—represents an obvious proto type of Jade Daniels in Jones’s Indian Lake Trilogy.

[2] The Blackfeet writer Jones challenges such perceived lack in his essay “Being Indian Is Not a Superpower,” asserting that “all of my characters had always been Blackfeet all along. There was never any reason to actually say it, but they always were. Just, I wasn’t hanging dreamcatchers and braids all over them, as that would be a lot like making them wriggle into loincloths so they could fit the limited expectations of…everyone, pretty much.”

[3]  Elaborating on his deliberate revision of formula, Jones (qtd. in Miller) notes: “The final girl in the slasher, in order to win the day, it usually becomes a game of who can take the most damage and give back the most damage, so it becomes a game of muscles and toughness. That, to me, always feels like the final girl’s having to cash in her characteristics, the things that have got her along in life so far. I found myself wondering with The Only Good Indians what would happen if the final girl won the day, not by swinging a machete the hardest or finding a chainsaw or whatever, but what if she won with compassion, which is what she’s had her whole life? That way, she doesn’t have to cash in her identity and be somebody else.”

[4] One of Straub’s more reprehensible (human) characters, professor Harold Sims, dismissively references the Manitou (“Myth survival, for Chrissake”), telling Stella Hawthorne “some story about an Indian who chased a deer for days up a mountain, but when he got to the top the deer turned on him and wasn’t a deer anymore” (257).

[5] In Don’t Fear the Reaper, Jones presents a non-supernatural Native American slasher figure (non-cliched, too: this is no warpainted tomahawk-wielder). The grotesquely disfigured man-mountain Dark Mill South is a walking, stalking frightfest who develops a proclivity for skinning his victims alive. But his interstate rampage is linked to an actual case of injustice—the “Dakota 38” dubiously sentenced to hang by President Lincoln in 1862, “the largest mass execution in American history” (14). Jones also traces this slasher’s sociopathy back to a warped childhood within the Morris Industrial School for Indians, a forced-conversion operation run by the allegedly Christian “Sisters of Mercy,” who likely subjected their charge to “privation, starvation, and various forms of sexual abuse” (417).

[6] Clover’s scholarly scrutiny helped launch the final girl as a pop-cultural trope, but her overthought/overwrought psychoanalytical criticism is bound to confound the average slasher fan. Clover clearly looks down her nose at the slasher, locating it at “the bottom of the horror heap” (21) and downplaying its progressiveness: applauding “the Final Girl as a feminist development” constitutes “a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking. She is simply an agreed-upon fiction and the male viewer’s use of her as a vehicle for his own sadomasochistic fantasies an act of perhaps timeless dishonesty” (53). Jones (who excerpts Clover’s book in respective epigraphs for Chainsaw and Reaper) views the final girl much more positively. While disavowing the too-unrelatable “perfect warrior angel princess model” (qtd. in Seery), Jones touts the final girl as “our model for how to stand up to bullies” (qtd. in McRobert). “We should all fight so hard against injustice,” Jones asserts. “At some point in our struggles, we should all turn around, face down our bullies, and then, like Nancy [in A Nightmare on Elm Street], turn our back on them” (“Let’s All”).

 

WORKS CITED

Clover, Carol  J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Jones, Stephen Graham. “Being Indian Is Not a Superpower.” Electric Literature. May 27, 2019.

—. Demon Theory. San Francisco: MacAdam Cage, 2006.

—. Don’t Fear the Reaper. New York: Saga Press, 2023.

—. The Last Final Girl. E-book ed., Lazy Fascist Press, 2012.

—. “Let’s All Be Final Girls.” CrimeReads. August 31, 2021.

—. My Heart Is a Chainsaw. New York: Saga Press, 2021.

—. The Only Good Indians. E-book ed., Saga Press, 2020.

—. “The State of the Slasher Address.” Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, & Fun of the Slasher Film. Ed. Vince A Liaguno. New York: Dark Scribe Press, 2011. 429-34.

—. “The State of the Slasher Address III.” Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, & Fun of the Slasher Film. Ed. Vince A Liaguno. New York: Dark Scribe Press, 2011. 445-450.

McRobert, Neil. “How Stephen Graham Jones Is Reinventing the Slasher.” Esquire. February 7, 2023.

Miller, Max Asher. “On Being a Good Indian: An Interview with Stephen Graham Jones.” Columbia Journal. May 18, 2020.

Seery, Jenna. “Poured Over: Stephen Graham Jones on Don’t Fear the Reaper.” B&N Reads. February 7, 2023.

Straub, Peter. Ghost Story. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.

 

“Paranormal Inactivity”

This one was born of my own boredom with the horror-movie franchise whose increasingly formulaic installments hit theaters annually in October.

 

Paranormal Inactivity

By Joe Nazare

 

Tonight I won’t do the flying dishes
Or the mood lighting of random rooms.
The furniture can remain precisely arranged
And the dog’s chain unrattled.
To hell with the low but baleful moaning,
All the tossing in beds and snatching of covers.

Why bother
When there’s always tomorrow (and tomorrow and…).
Time ultimately grinds the edge off the most spiteful grudge,
Turns the vastest repertoire hauntingly familiar.
Restlessness, I’ve realized, isn’t a sustainable state;
Even the ethereal can be weighed down by lethargy.

 

For further sampling of Autumn Lauds: Poems for the Halloween Season (the complete 62-poem volume can be purchased on Amazon), check out the book’s dedicated page here on this website, and these past posts:

“Ulalume and Ulalume II”

“Fourteen Ways of Looking at Fall Foliage”

“Seize the Season”

“Angry Villager Vocals”

“Shock Treatment”

“Lauding Autumn Once Again”

“Gunpowder Plots”

“Autumn Lauds Anniversary”

“At Hand”

“Haunted Attraction”

“Patch Match”

 

Screamin’ Season

October Screams: A Halloween Anthology. Edited by Kenneth W. Cain (Kangas Kahn Publishing, 2023).

Open your candy bags wide, Halloween lovers, because October Screams dishes out a heap of all-new narrative treats. And several of these dark confections are utterly delectable…

Shades of Practical Magic can be glimpsed in Gwendolyn Kiste’s “Twin Flames,” in which a pair of sisters are burdened by a dark legacy. The Addams Family is also invoked, but the uncanny clan depicted here definitely proves more creepy than kooky.

Todd Keisling’s folk/cosmic-horror tale “The Puppeteer of Samhain” presents a dramatic monologue with a traumatic twist. The eponymous god-and-monster is a walking (or rather, gliding) frightfest, an eldritch Celtic creature whose Halloween night handiwork reaches deep into the reader.

Halloween and the alien invasion theme trace back nearly a century to Orson Welles’s notorious radio broadcast, but Larry Hinkle’s “The Last Halloween” evinces more of the gonzo sensibility of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! Hinkle sends out a sinister yet grinning account of a night of trick-or-treating gone spectacularly awry.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Tutti I Morti” stands out by virtue of its elderly protagonist and its turn to Italian holiday customs. The grotesque imagery of the story’s climax supplies enough nightmare fuel to feed a worldwide bonfire.

Constant Readers of Stephen King will dig the Pet Sematary vibe of Ronald Malfi’s “Tate” (the back-from-the-grave child of the title even sounds a lot like the surname of Gage Creed). Making matters even more grueling and ghoulish, Malfi also features a bizarre children’s special–The Jack-o’-Screams Halloween Spooktacular–whose background airing serves as a freak chorus commenting on the story’s terrible events.

“The Iron Maiden” by Rebecca Rowland opens with typical trappings (teens foolishly investigate a reputed haunted house on Halloween night) but ultimately offers a fresh, savage twist on a familiar figure of Celtic lore. And how not to appreciate a tale named after a legendary heavy metal band (and which makes strong thematic use of their song “2 Minutes to Midnight”)?

In Philip Fracassi’s “Eleven One,” protagonist Gwen awakens the day after a disastrous Halloween (her fiancé broke off their engagement) hung over, in a mental fog, and seemingly cut off from the wider world. This slow burn of a story builds to an expected yet effective climax thanks to Fracassi’s masterful amassing of unnerving detail.

Hands down, my favorite entry in the anthology is Gemma Amor’s “The Hooper Street Halloween Decoration Committee.” I’ll never be able to look at those giant Home Depot skeleton figures the same way again after the wickedly witty use an overzealous neighborhood makes of them here). This blackly humorous tale is just begging to be adapted as a segment of Creepshow next season.

As publisher Kevin Kangas explains in his afterward, the anthology’s contents were gathered by both author invite and an open submission period. To be honest, the result is a certain unevenness–a noticeable difference in quality between the pieces by the more popular authors and those by the less recognizable names. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable story collection overall; the About the Authors section (in which the writers share their inspirations for their respective stories, and provide a photo of themselves in Halloween costume) adds a nice concluding touch. October Screams might not be October Dreams (still the black-and-orange standard), but it will make a fine addition to the Halloween reader’s fiction collection.

 

 

“From Scratch”

Menu script…

From Scratch

By Joe Nazare

 

Forget the ham, eggs, and food cake, of course,
Items too trite by now to even be tried.
But remember, the recipe always calls for decadence,
And distastefulness will perennially prove savory.
Take note: dark hints satisfy my harsh palate–
Slaughtered lamb basted in sizzling spittle,
Lordly flies floating atop a soup of human woe,
Swiftian meat pies with crunchy baby-knuckle surprise.
Restraint be damned: become a Caligula of catering,
Let imagination run wild (but keep gluttony ever in mind).
Know that there’s no shortage of groceries here,
So shop with abandon the aisles of lost souls in stock.
All the while, resign yourself to a fundamental rule:
You no longer live, yet exist to serve, in one form or another.
Apprehend, then: there are never enough cooks in this kitchen;
When the whole underworld’s an oven, your ordained part is to bake.

 

***

Want to wash such foul fare down with vintage wickedness? Then might I suggest pairing this poem with some “Occult Beverages”?

Let Me Count the Slays

For me, and likely most readers of this post, horror is a year-round love affair. But no doubt it’s the High Holiday month of October that renders us the most enraptured. Halloween season is the time to bask in the enticing glow of scary films/shows both new and classic, to devote oneself passionately to the reading of horror novels, collections, and anthologies. For those trying to determine which literary treats to stock up on this October, there is no better source to consult than Sadie “Mother Horror” Hartmann’s new nonfiction publication 101 Horror Books to Read Before You’re Murdered.

As Josh Malerman accurately glosses in his foreword, Hartmann’s impressive book presents “an overflowing bibliography of an entire genre.” 101 Horror Books focuses on title released between 2000-2023, and is organized into five thematic sections (Paranormal, Supernatural, Human Monsters, Natural Order Horror, and Short Story Collections) that are further subdivided into subgenre categories (e.g., Demons and Possession, The Occult & Witchcraft, Cosmic Horror). Each of these sections/categories receives an introductory overview; Hartmann also concludes her  reviews with a handy “At a Glance” reference guide that indexes the selected title according to its specific themes, its Tone (e.g., Bleak, Blood-Soaked, Disorienting, Humorous, Shocking) Style (e.g., Character-Driven, Dual Timeline, Lyrical, Clive Barker[ish]) Setting, and Publisher (Hartmann highlights books published both traditionally and independently).

A renowned editor, essayist, and book reviewer, Hartmann is first and foremost a horror fan. Her love for the genre shines through brilliantly here. She does not hesitate to wax enthusiastic, whether in a couple of succinct sentences (Philip Fracassi’s Boys in the Valley “is the scariest coming-of-age story I have read since Stephen King’s IT. It’s the scariest demon possession book I’ve read since The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.”) or in a more extensive passage:

Just Like Home is the future of horror. The direction we’re heading toward. It’s whipcrack smart, intricately plotted, and fluctuates perfectly between a past and present narrative. The characters are complex–each serving a purpose to further the horror embedded in this tale. Nobody is an afterthought or an add-on. Every line of dialogue develops layers upon layers of nuance. [Sarah] Gailey’s insidious brand of supernatural terror effortlessly works together with psychological elements to create a hybrid thriller-horror rollercoaster that I could have ridden on into oblivion. What a dark, delicious, seductive book. I’ll never get over it, and it’s forever on my book recommendation list.

In only a couple of pages, Hartmann’s reviews capture what each book is about, and what writerly strengths it demonstrates (e.g. Chuck Wendig’s style in The Book of Accidents “is uniquely accessible and compelling like a best friend telling you a great story. His wheelhouse is reaching past the page to grab his audience’s emotions.”). Hartmann also highlights the literary/cultural significance of her selections. For instance, she touts the modern relevance of Alexis Henderson’s The Year of the Witching: “This book stands as a reminder that we have not evolved past the horrors of the Salem witch trials. A warning that society continues to be capable of twisting and perverting religious texts in order to persecute, and ultimately condemn, people who live lives not “approved” by whatever dogmatic leadership is in position of authority.”

Hartmann’s extensive compendium is also in a certain sense a very intimate and revealing book. The reader gains a lot of insight into the author’s personality (“I’m a scaredy cat who reads a lot of horror. The more horror books you read, the wiser you become.”). Hartmann reveals her own reading preferences–her personal favorite subgenres. She cites the books on her 101 list that strike her as the “most thought-provoking,” “taboo,” and “darkest, most extreme,” and identifies “the single most wicked character to ever terrify me in literature.” Just as rewardingly, she shares her philosophies of horror, analyzing its import as a genre (“It’s a communal way of exchanging our fears and anxieties about grief, loss, and death without the risk of actually going through tragedy. Or for people with such experiences, it’s a way to relate.”) and impact on its audience (“Horror readers are given a special gift by authors: teaching us how to broaden our capacity for empathy in the real world by braving other people’s harsh realities through their fictional accounts.”).

All told, a tour de force offering by Hartmann, but this multifaceted, polyvocal book is not restricted to her particular perspective. Hartmann features ten Author Spotlight sections (lauding writers–such as Stephen Graham Jones, Tananarive Due, and Paul Tremblay–whose admirable body of work makes it too difficult to choose a single book); each of these sections concludes with a blurb from that author, listing their own three favorite horror books. The volume also features a series of guest essays (by Cassandra Khaw, Hailey Piper, Eric LaRocca, and RJ Joseph). Such genre deep-diving by various respected professionals makes the book feel like the literary equivalent of documentary series such as Eli Roth’s History of Horror or The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time.

One major trigger warning: if you are someone who dreads the thought of your TBR pile suddenly mutating and rising to monstrous heights, avoid this book like the blackest of plagues. Otherwise, seek out 101 Horror Books to Read Before You’re Murdered as if you’re life depended on the immediate purchase. I would even go so far as to recommend getting a print copy (glossy, colorful, and featuring an aesthetically-pleasing layout that includes entertaining sidebars–“Animals Gone Wild!”; “The Exorcist’s Tool Kit”) as well as an eBook edition (if you like to highlight/annotate your texts). At once informative and inspiring, Hartmann’s book is destined to prove an indispensable resource for readers and writers of horror alike.

 

Behind the Scenes of Sleepy Hollow

When preparing to publish The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition, I did extensive background reading, but one item that escaped my notice was the shooting draft for the 1999 Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow. Thanks to a link posted on the Halloween blog, The Skeleton Key, that oversight has now been corrected. Some thoughts/observations about the shooting draft…

The shooting draft’s cover page presents some interesting sub-titular info : “Being the true storie of one Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman.” This is a nice callback to Washington Irving’s Diedrich Knickerbocker, a writing persona notorious for the confusion of fact and fiction in his recording of allegedly “true history.”

An early scene in the film (Ichabod’s dispatching north to Sleepy Hollow by the Burgomaster [Christopher Lee]) is conceived more fully in the shooting draft. This “Audition Scene” features applicants (“mostly obvious Cranks and Eccentrics”) demonstrating “Devices for crime fighting and crime solving” to New York City officials. One amateur Inventor shows off a “combination wallet and mousetrap” pickpocketing deterrent, while another Spotty Man ends up trapped inside his own contraption, the “Tompkins Self-Locking Confessional.”

Reading the shooting draft evokes a mental replay of the beloved Burton film; bits of delivered dialogue echoed inside my head. Equally rewarding are the shooting draft’s descriptions of iconic objects/figures. I love the word picture painted of the Tree of the Dead: “Its branches reach far and wide, knotted and gross, like agony captured in wood sculpture.” This looming embodiment of gloominess sports a “vertical wound in the bark, like a terrible suture, now healed” into a “mushy scar.” The grotesquerie of the Headless Horseman–his “putrid innards” and “maggot-infested muscle,” his steed of “moldering flesh”–is also emphasized. Irving’s legendary ghost-or-goblin has been realized as “Hell on horseback.”

In the film, the Horseman’s last exit (carrying Lady Van Tassel off into the Tree of the Dead) provides a macabre spectacle, but this farewell might have been even more frightful if a special effect detailed in the shooting draft was retained: “For an instant, Horseman and horse are transformed, SKELETONS OF LIGHT, entering the tree!”

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the description of Lady Van Tassel and Reverend Steenwyck’s illicit tryst: “On a blanket, a semi-naked MAN and semi-naked WOMAN are in the midst of rough SEX” (I never realized rough sex existed in late-17th Century Sleepy Hollow!). The shooting draft itself makes light of the late night scene: Asked by Young Masbath what he discovered, Ichabod says: “Something I wish I had not seen. A beast with two backs.” The astonished, naive Young Masbath takes the expression literally: “A beast with…? What next in these bewitched woods?!”

One key thematic figure from the shooting draft never made it into the film: The Crane family cat. This striking feline (black with a white paw and glowing eyes) appears in several of the flashbacks to Ichabod’s youth, and at film’s end greets the heroes upon their arrival in New York City: “THE CAT’S EYES ARE HUMAN, INTELLIGENT, KINDLY…They are Ichabod’s Mother’s eyes.” A happy ending is rendered even more felicitous, as the good, guiding spirit of Ichabod’s Mother has apparently survived the woman’s torture/murder by her puritanical husband.

The shooting draft certainly furnishes an entertaining read for completists. And for more on Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, check out my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition.

 

Baby and Maul

Joe Hill might not be as prolific a writer as his papa, Stephen King, but arguably is gifted with an even more prodigious imagination. Works such as Heart-Shaped Box, Locke and Keyand “Faun” demonstrate Hill’s knack for crafting wonderfully inventive horror and dark fantasy narratives. Hill also gives clever twists to King classics such as IT and The Stand in the epic novels NOS4A2 and The Fireman. His latest effort, The Pram, ventures into Pet Sematary territory, and conveys a strong King vibe as it takes a mundane object–the titular baby stroller–and transforms it into a source of utter dreadfulness.

Mentally reeling from a miscarriage, Brooklyn couple Willy and Marianne Halpenny relocate to rural Maine. Leading from their new home and into the woods is a bridle path bordered by overarching yew trees planted by a peculiarly old-fashioned religious movement called the Covenant of the Sorrowful Leaf. As Willy traverses the sublime space of this eldritch tree-tunnel, he indulges his festering resentment–his anger at God and the universe over the loss of his unborn child. More disturbingly, he begins to hear the sound of a baby cooing within the derelict pram he borrows from the local country-store owner to transport his purchases home. Hill’s tale strikes a perfect balance here between domestic drama, psychological disintegration, and folk horror. Creepiness steadily crescendoes (the remote, American Gothic setting features gypsy moth cocoons and a mutilated raccoon), and the narrative builds to perhaps the most harrowing climax since the night Gage Creed shambled home from the Micmac Burying Ground.

The Pram (free for Prime subscribers, or available as a 99-cent Kindle download) launches Amazon’s new Creature Feature collection today, and gets the weeklong series off to a rousing, hair-raising start.

 

Hercule Poirot in a Horror Pic?

Director/lead actor Kenneth Branagh leans unabashedly into the macabre in his latest Agatha Christie adaptation, A Haunting in Venice. His renowned detective Hercule Poirot is drawn out of retirement and into a nightmarish scene: a series of murders at a reputedly-haunted Venetian palazzo, on Halloween night (while a tempest rages without), following an unnerving seance. There are jump scares, moldering skeletons, ghostly apparitions (perhaps hallucinated), and moments of grisly violence–including a plunging impalement that puts one in mind of The Omen. At first, this might all seem a terrible bastardization of the source material, a move too far afield from the gentility of Christie’s mystery novels and their typical English-countryside milieu. The strong emphasis on horror shouldn’t work in this particular case, but it does.

Branagh’s film enfolds its audience in its lushly atmospheric central locale; an effective sense of claustrophobia is created as the viewer is trapped alongside the characters within the creepy, shadow-swathed, storm-ravaged palazzo. Rational explanation vs. (seemingly) spectral vengeance makes for an engrossing conflict, one that A Haunting in Venice overtly thematizes (Poirot’s staunch nonbelief in the otherworldly leads to a quite interesting character arc for the detective). The supernatural/fakery debate is as old as the Gothic genre itself, and that’s what Branaugh has furnished a prime example of here: the cinematic equivalent of a classic Gothic novel. Agatha Christie by way of Ann Radcliffe.

If there is one drawback to the film, it’s that the murder-mystery element proves insufficiently baffling. Certain passing references scream out to be recognized as key clues. Without having read the original Christie novel Hallowe’en Party, I guessed the murderer long before the climactic reveal. I’m no Poirot, but have watched enough mysteries to know not to trust an unlikely suspect. When the wavering finger of suspicion conspicuously failed to point at a specific character, my attention was focused in exactly that direction. A more elaborate employment of red herrings would have strengthened the plot of this hardly-lengthy (107 minutes) film.

A Haunting in Venice does not present as satisfactorily complex a mystery as the preceding Christie adaptations (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile), but succeeds as a visually lavish Gothic thriller. Haunting in all the best ways, the film makes for the perfect viewing to kick off the Halloween season.