Hair of the Werewolf

It’s the darkest time of year, when the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder has nothing to do with the end of Daylight Savings Time. No, I’m talking about the inevitable letdown as the calendar turns to November. Another Halloween has come (all too quickly, despite all your anticipation and preparation) and gone. How to deal with this disheartening problem? Go ask Alice:

The best cure for a Halloween hangover is not to turn cold sober. Instead, keep enjoying spirits, stay lit with a warm inner glow. Carry October over into November, and carry on with your favorite activities. Start (or finish) bingeing on all those spooky shows you want to watch. Catch up with your reading, whether its the latest horror novels/anthologies or High-Holiday-related articles (two suggestions: scholar Lesley Bannatyne’s essay on the history of Halloween mischief, and this profile of pumpkin-carving savant Ray Villafane). Scour social media for images of the best costumes from this year–although none will be able to surpass the following get-up (highlighted on Bloody Disgusting), which had me barking out laughter:

Here in the Macabre Republic, Halloween is not just a day, or even a season, but a 52-weeks-a-year ethos. This blog aims to maintain the mood, to keep the Dispatches coming. And work continues on a special project that wasn’t quite ready for release this year, but will certainly be completed in time for the Halloween ’19 celebration.

In the meantime, let’s keep imbibing the frightful, and guzzling the Gothic. Such strange brew will be a heady remedy for the winter blues.

 

Liquor Treat (Halloween short story)

In honor of the High Holiday, here’s an original short story posted to this website.

Happy Halloween to all the celebrants in the Macabre Republic!

 

Liquor Treat

By Joe Nazare

 

“You’re never gonna believe this,” Tyrese forecasted as he stormed into the room.

Frankie sat cross-legged atop his bed, sifting through his afternoon haul. He’d already sorted out M&Ms and Milk Duds and Tootsie Roll Pops and Smarties. Reluctantly, he turned his attention from his sweets. “What?”

Tyrese, looking half-gruesome in his Harvey Dent costume, needed a moment to catch his breath before blurting: “There’s some lady over on Stevenson Ave. handing out alcohol to trick-or-treaters.”

What?” Frankie repeated. “Gimme a break.”

His friend stood there nodding insistently. “It’s true. She’s giving out bottles of stuff right there at her door.”

“Oh yeah? So then where’s yours?”

Tyrese grunted his frustration. “I didn’t say everyone: only the bigger kids are scoring liquor. For the rest, it’s standard candy. But Jeff Marion and Glenda Walinski and Peter Settembrino got a bottle each,” Tyrese said, naming the trio of sixteen year olds from Hallorann High.

Although Frankie could easily picture the teens (who he’d often seen hanging out in front of Shop Rite’s liquor annex) being supplied with alcohol, he still struggled with the scenario Tyrese painted. “But why would this lady just be giving the stuff away?”

“What do I know?” Tyrese shot back, in the key of “what does that matter!” He lowered his voice and theorized: “Maybe she’s goin’ on the wagon. Maybe she’s moving away and has to clean house. Maybe she’s one of those rare, cool adults who don’t mind kids partying. The point, nimrod, is that she’s handing out free booze. So why just sit here asking why?”

Finally Frankie understood where this was heading. “Hey, you really think I could get a bottle off of her?”

“If there’s an eighth grader who can pull this off,” Tyrese said, “it’s you.”

Frankie took the statement as fact rather than flattery. While he didn’t have much meat on his bones, he had plenty of height in his favor. Barely thirteen, he stood two inches shy of six feet. He played center on his CYO basketball team, towering over not just pipsqueak point guard Tyrese but the rosters of the entire league. A young man amongst boys, Frankie wore the signs of maturation plain on his face. When he used his mom’s makeup to rub fake beard growth onto his cheeks today, he didn’t have to bother with his upper lip, where puberty had already penciled in the dark strands of a mustache.

Sitting in his bedroom now, Frankie imagined how his schoolyard cred would skyrocket if he managed to snag a Halloween bottle of liquor. “And you know exactly where this lady lives?” he asked. When Tyrese bobbled his head “yes,” Frankie popped to his feet and quickly reassembled his costume. He slid back into the old flannel shirt that had belonged to his father. Then hefted the broomstick with the sock-stuffed bandana tied around its end. “Okay, let’s go.”

They barreled downstairs and toward the front door. “Going out to do s’more trick-or-treating with Tyrese!” Frankie announced as they hurried past the laundry room, where his mom stood pulling a tangle of clothes from the dryer.

“Be careful,” she called after him. “And make sure you’re back before supper, hear me?”

Tyrese, who liked to watch old shows on Nickelodeon from the dark ages of black-and-white, intervened with his best Eddie Haskell imitation. “G’night, Miz Baldwin. Don’t worry, Frankie and I’ll look out for each other.”

Then they were out the door. Following the sun’s lead, the temperature had dipped in the time since Frankie’s return home earlier. And the wind had picked up, raking orange-red leaves across the slabs of sidewalk, leaves that crunched underfoot like squashed beetles as the boys sped down the block.

They wove through the neighborhood, Tyrese in the lead. His pace doubled when they made the final turn onto Stevenson.“There,” he said, stopping short and pointing diagonally across the street.

Just an ordinary-looking house—brown brick front and dented beige siding. A wide perimeter of patchy grass separated the house from its nearest neighbors. Frankie had probably passed the place hundreds of times in his life, oblivious to it. But he studied it closely now, wariness gnawing away at his anticipation.

“Go ahead, big guy,” Tyrese prompted him.

“You’re not coming with me?”

“I can’t,” he said. “She might not give you the liquor if she sees me with you. I don’t wanna blow your cover.”

Frankie could understand the reasoning, even if he didn’t relish the thought of going solo. But then he considered how approaching the house alone would only enhance the story of his exploits.

“Alright. Wait here.” Prepping himself with a deep breath, Frankie hurried across the street and onto the flight of concrete steps. He wondered who waited on the other side of that front door. Some senile old bat who’d lost the distinction between a bottle of Scotch and a bag of Skittles? Or did she know exactly what she was doing?

Still scaling the steps, Frankie glanced back over his shoulder. Tyrese had squatted down behind the fender of a parked Jeep. His waving hand directed Frankie to keep going.

A sudden, horrid thought, though, stalled Frankie. What if Tyrese was even more two-faced than his costume suggested? What if he’d set him up for a Halloween prank? Were his goblin-masked accomplices huddling behind the front door right now, waiting to jump out once Frankie approached? The more he thought about it, the whole story about a woman treating kids to bottles of liquor sounded too good to be true.

But what if it was true? What if he blew a once-in-an-underage-lifetime opportunity by chickening out? One thing Frankie was certain of—he didn’t have time for indecision. All too soon, his mom would be expecting him home.

Chafing at the thought of his mom’s unwavering overprotection, Frankie made up his mind. In a burst of gangly movement, he finished the climb to the doorstep.

Masking tape covered the presumably dead doorbell; PLEASE KNOCK had been inked across it. Swallowing, Frankie followed the instruction.

Within a half minute that felt like a half hour, Frankie heard shuffling footsteps inside. The door swung inward, and the space filled with a solitary female figure.

This wasn’t some crazy hag, Frankie saw, just a middle-aged housewife dressed in a purple turtleneck and blue jeans. She was nowhere near as elderly as his imagination had cast her, but for some reason she also struck him as looking older than her actual age. Shadows rimmed the eyes sunken in her otherwise pale face. Her scraggly black hair had a skunk stripe streaking back from the temple, just like Johnny Depp in that Sweeney Todd movie Frankie and Tyrese had snuck in to see at the Cineplex.

The silence growing exponentially awkward as the lady eyeballed him, Frankie stammered, “Umm, t-trick-or-treat?” A Tyresian voice immediately sounded in his head: C’mon, nimrod, act like you’ve done this before.

But the imagined chastising only made Frankie realize what differed from his previous foray that afternoon: he’d forgotten to tote the old pillowcase that served as his candy bag! He felt practically naked in his present empty-handedness.

The woman’s gaze narrowed. “How old are you, kiddo?” she asked in rasped voice.

“Sixteen,” Frankie lied, not daring to stretch the truth any further.

“Sixteen,” she repeated, seeming to chew over the answer. She looked him up and down, and then past his shoulder, perhaps checking for adult supervisors or other potential witnesses curbside.

“Okay, hang on,” she told him at last, pulling back behind the partly-closed door.

Frankie was so keyed up by that point, he didn’t know what to expect. Would she come back holding a candy bar? A demonic barber’s straight razor? A phone with his mom on the other end of the line?

But a torturous moment later, she stepped back into view choking the neck of a long bottle of clear liquid. Amazingly, she held it out to him. “Here you g—”

Before she could finish the sentence, Frankie snatched the offering and bolted down the flight of stairs, his knees pistoning as if he were emulating a drill from basketball practice. Overwhelmed by a potent mix of anxiety and exhilaration, he forgot to even thank the woman for her special treat.

 

***

Lorna watched the lanky hobo race down her steps. After scanning the twilit street, she withdrew into the house.

She turned toward the long snack table lining the wall to the immediate right of the door. Atop it sat an orange plastic bowl filled with nugget-sized Snickers and Three Musketeers. The bowl was one of those motion-sensing pieces specially tricked out for Halloween: whenever a human hand reached into it, the scaly green one poking up from its center came slapping down. Lorna, though, had removed the decoration’s battery, having long since tired of such routine.

What seized her attention now wasn’t the still-brimming candy bowl but rather the stark emptiness of the tabletop alongside it. She’d just given away the very last bottle of liquor from the domestic cache.

The realization set off a tremor in her hands. She felt as if every last droplet of saliva in her mouth had evaporated. Oh c’mon, her conscience scolded her. Show some grit. Don’t stand here acting like you’re getting the DT’s.

She’d made her sober resolution after many hard nights and many days of soul-searching. Knowing she couldn’t just pour the liquor down the drain, she decided to get rid of the cursed bottles by handing them out to the older kids who knocked on her door today. She figured that such disposal constituted a crime, albeit a minor one in the grander scheme of things.

The layout of the house was such that the front door opened directly onto the living room. Lorna couldn’t help but sigh now as she turned and surveyed the surrounding space. Neglect appeared to be the room’s dominant motif. Grime tinted the vinyl slats of the window blinds. Dust bunnies roamed the long-since-swept hardwood floor. The crocheted blanket hung crooked as a parallelogram across the back of the sofa, and a slew of old magazines formed an artless mosaic atop the coffee table.

It saddened her to be so visibly reminded of how far she’d let things slip, of how long she’d carried on like she had. But now certainly wasn’t the time to dwell on past folly, not with the opportunity for liberation looming before her. If she could just somehow get through tonight, tomorrow’s outlook would be infinitely brighter.

A sudden rapping startled her from her thoughts. Lorna opened the door to find a husky, acne-masked teen waiting there. “Trick-or-treat,” he recited. Along with a knowing grin, he wore black denims and a red sweatshirt. A few rubber-banded Heralds protruded from the satchel slung on his shoulder. Lorna didn’t believe this paperboy was even in costume; she was sure she’d seen him making his neighborhood rounds in weeks past.

Either way, he looked crestfallen when she broke out the candy bowl. No doubt he’d had his heart set on schnapps, not Snickers.

Sorry, kiddo, she wanted to tell him. But you should’ve gotten here earlier. In this world, timing is everything.

 

***

Frankie thought he was home free, until he realized that he still had to smuggle the bottle into his own house.

He’d just parted ways with Tyrese, who’d been yipping at his heels like a toy poodle: Let me see it/Let me hold it/Let me smell it. Tyrese had such awe for the bottle, you woulda thought he expected a genie to come smoking out of it. Finally Frankie had to tell him to go on home. Not too harshly, though, since he knew he’d need his friend to back up the story of this escapade come Monday morning at school.

Without Tyrese here driving him nuts, Frankie could take the time to study what he held. BACARDI Puerto Rican Rum, the wording on the slender bottle labeled its colorless contents. Frankie didn’t know anything about rum, except that the Pirates of the Caribbean were crazy for it. He didn’t worry much about the fact that the seal was broken and the bottle only half full. Who knew if he’d ever get around to actually drinking the liquor; right now the possession of it was what mattered most.

Frankie unscrewed the cap and lifted the bottle to his nose for a curious sniff. Ewww—reminded him of lighter fluid.

He twisted the cap back on tight before turning onto his block and closing in on his house. His ears burned red and his heartbeat kicked into overdrive when he reached the front door. This was it.

Frankie dropped his broomstick prop alongside the entrance; he’d come retrieve it once he’d delivered the bottle to his bedroom. For now, he hid the contraband as best he could by draping his flannel shirt over it and cradling the bottle to his chest.

S…l…o…w…l…y he turned the brass knob and pushed the door open. As he crept into the foyer, he could hear the NBC anchorman relaying the evening news on the living room TV. Frankie didn’t hear any sound of his mom moving about, which was good. Most likely meant she was sprawled out on the couch.

With all the strained grace of a cat burglar, Frankie tiptoed down the hall and up onto the staircase. He took one gradual step at a time. He cringed when wood creaked beneath him, his nervousness exaggerating the sound into that of a splintering redwood. But the noise failed to alert his mom of his return, so Frankie continued his labored ascent.

Arriving at the second floor landing an eternity later, Frankie turned down a hallway that seemed to have stretched to nightmare length. He treaded as softly as possible, thankful for the muffling pad of teal blue carpet beneath his feet. When only a few feet from his bedroom doorway, he shucked his self-restraint. Sensing himself in the clear, he disentangled the bottle from his shirt and scurried the last few steps into the privacy of his room.

Only to find his mom standing there at his closet hanging up his laundry for him.

They serenaded each other with their startled gasps. The liquor bottle jumped right out of Frankie’s hand and dive-bombed to the floor, detonating upon impact.

His mom’s eyebrows bobbed on her forehead, then sloped sharply once the telltale smell drifted toward her. The simultaneous disappointment and displeasure molding her features proved scarier than any Halloween mask.

“Frankie!” she screeched at him, and he could tell from the tone that it wouldn’t be her last word on the subject.

 

***

Lorna stared unfocusedly at the sitcom flashing its banality across the TV screen. She sat slouched on the brown suede sofa, with her arms crossed and her hands cupping her elbows. For all the spirits she’d exorcised from the house today, she still felt haunted.

She realized that dispensing with the stock of liquor had been the easy part. The immediate aftermath was the crucial factor, and would determine whether her whole endeavor turned into a smashing failure. Lorna flicked a glance toward the dust-coated grandfather clock towering in the corner of the room, and shuddered.

Did she really think she was going to be able to hold out, to get through this night in one piece? Not even 6:30, and she was a nervous wreck already.

That old maxim sounded in her head, chiding her: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

Then Lorna heard the clacks on the steps outside, followed by the rattle of the doorknob and the creaking swing of the front door itself. She didn’t move from her seat, and barely shifted her gaze. She could have identified her husband’s nightly entrance blindfolded.

Alvin pushed the door shut behind him, sloughed off his jacket and slung it on the wooden rack affixed to the wall on the right. In concession to the holiday, he had dressed this morning in black slacks and a deep orange shirt and matching tie. “Hey baby,” he called, beelining toward her.

He leaned over and planted a long, open-mouthed kiss on her lips. The duration of the smooch enabled him to reach across and give her right breast a firm squeeze, like a shopper testing produce at the supermarket.

Lorna couldn’t keep her nostrils from sniffing. She detected the beer on his breath, believed she could even smell the alcohol wafting through the pores of his cheek and neck like some faint aftershave. Alvin worked as assistant manager at the downtown Barnes & Noble, and every Tuesday and Friday joined his staff for happy hour at the adjacent Houlihan’s. Had one or two—but never more—sociable drinks before heading home.

Oblivious to her reaction, Alvin straightened. He beamed a smile that promised further groping later on tonight. “OK, lemme go wash up and change,” he said, as if she were the one stopping him. Turning to exit the room, he added, “Give a holler when dinner’s ready.”

Dinner? The word alerted Lorna to her own absentmindedness. She’d been so preoccupied with this afternoon’s handouts, she hadn’t even thought to plan a meal for tonight. Oh well.

Rather than scurrying into the kitchen, she maintained her perch. Stationed at the front end of the house, she could still hear the cascade of the bathroom faucet.

Frowning, Lorna eyed the grandfather clock once more. Hardly any time had passed since last check.

Her fidgeting hand found the remote and used it to zap the TV. The ensuing silence amplified the sound of Alvin’s activities within. Lorna heard him flip the light switch in the bathroom and shuffle down the hall. She heard the rustle of his undressing in the bedroom, soon followed by the slide of the closet door. And then she heard Alvin scream.

“LORNA!” The cry seemed to reverberate off every wall in the house. Lorna swallowed, braced herself for this moment of truth. She was by no means clairvoyant, but clearly understood what her husband had discovered.

Alvin kept all of his liquor bottles stashed at the bottom of the bedroom closet. He wouldn’t display them openly elsewhere in the house, lest any visitor note the extensiveness of his collection and cast aspersions on his character. His in-home binges were his dirty little secret, which inevitably besmirched Lorna as well.

Her husband’s preoccupation with surface appearance concealed more than just alcohol abuse. When in his cups and out of sorts, he yanked her hair wantonly, knowing such rough gesture wouldn’t leave visible mark on her. And even if his stinging smacks of her backside caused any bruises—which they often did—the handiwork could always be excused as the byproduct of bedroom kinkiness. Oh, Alvin was a sly one when it came to avoiding incriminating evidence.

“LORNA!” he boomed again. His initial naming of her had been a yawp of dismay; this next address was voiced in stern accusation. It chased Lorna to her feet.

She stepped back automatically when Alvin stalked into the living room. Instant regret of her transgression today swamped her. She’d miscalculated terribly; how could she have possibly thought that her crazy plan would work out alright?

He was stripped down to his white A-shirt, which Alvin in his political and alphabetical incorrectness always referred to as a “Guinea T.” Under other circumstances, he might have looked comical, standing there in his boxers and with his dress socks stretching up his calves. But his wavy black hair was disheveled from the hands that must have ruffled it, hands presently clenched into vibrant fists.

What did you do?” he demanded in guttural voice. Although he knew she herself never touched the stuff, he had explicitly instructed Lorna long ago to never, ever touch his stuff.

Lorna stood static as a headlighted deer, watching Alvin snort temper through flared nostrils. His hooded glare bespoke a determination to help himself to a few belts tonight—one way or the other.

He didn’t wait for Lorna to mutter some explanation. Unmasked and monstrous, he charged straight at her.

 

***

Alvin synchronized his blows with his slurs. He knelt straddling Lorna in the middle of the living room floor, letting her know—and feel—just what he thought about her little prohibitionist ploy. Each fist fell heavy as an anvil, as if his fury had anagrammed his name and transmuted him into unforgiving steel. So engrossed was he in punishing the thieving, teetotaling bitch that he lost all track of his surroundings. It took him some time to realize that the staccato thunks he heard came not just from Lorna’s skull against polished hardwood, but from knocking on the front door.

Whipping his head over his shoulder, Alvin caught glimpse of the candy bowl on the snack table and immediately grasped the nature of the solicitation. “Getouttahere, you goddamn mooches!” he growled towards the envisioned grouping on his doorstep.

Even more persistent knocking answered the dismissal, fanning Alvin’s rage. Backhanding Lorna for good measure, he pounced to his feet and moved to give the kids outside an unsweet mouthful.

But Alvin froze as he was about to wrench the doorknob. Through the set of glass arches aligned high on the door, he spotted the figures outside. Some lanky teen dressed up as a hobo, bracketed by a pair of even taller companions. Their shiny silver badges glistened on the breasts of blue uniforms that were no mere costumes.

The realization sent Alvin reeling back from the threshold. He stared down at himself, suddenly conscious of his blood-gloved hands.

From their side of the doorway, the officers must have registered movement within. One promptly resumed knuckling the door, while the other vocalized the desire for admittance. “Mrs. Cahill,” the deep voice penetrated Alvin’s sanctum.

Alvin just stood there, his head slowly shaking. How could this be? How could they be out there hounding him right now? The timing was all wrong. The bordering houses sat far wide of this one, so no neighbor was likely to overhear him disciplining his wife. And even if someone had called in to report a disturbance, there was no way in hell a squad car could’ve been dispatched here this quick.

Flummoxed, he swiveled his gaze toward Lorna. She lay sprawled on her back, straining to tilt her head up off the floor. Though reduced to slits by the rapid swelling, her empurpled eyes blazed as they fixed him. A wicked, chipped-tooth grin carved itself across the bottom of her face. Drooling pink froth, the human jack’-o-lantern spoke at last. Alvin felt his sphincter seize up and an abrupt claustrophobia encage him as he translated the garbled phrase.

Timely yet uncanny, it sounded awful like “Trick-or-Treat.”

 

Triple Six Pack

Back in the day on my old Macabre Republic blog, I had a feature called Pick Six with ____. It was a variation on the traditional interview, as the subject got to choose whichever six questions he/she would like to answer from a list of nearly forty items (questions and prompts pertaining to the writer’s own work, as well as his/her thoughts on the world of horror). I am hoping to resurrect this feature here at Dispatches from the Macabre Republic in the near future, but in the meantime here is a re-post of interviews with a trio of Halloween Lit luminaries:

 

Pick Six with Norman Partridge (originally posted 11/1/2012)

If there were a Halloween Hall of Fame, Norman Partridge no doubt would be a first-year inductee. He provided an instant classic for holiday readers in 2006 with his Bram Stoker Award-winning novel Dark Harvest (which was also chosen as one of the 100 Best Books of that year by Publishers Weekly). His various Halloween narratives (including a novelette-length prequel to Dark Harvest) are collected in Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season.

1.What is your favorite Halloween memory?

I’d have to open up my treat sack and toss in all the Halloweens I remember as a kid growing up in the Sixties. For me, that was the holiday’s golden age. Every kid in the neighborhood hit the streets, and the doorbells didn’t stop ringing all night long.

One year my truck-driver dad showed up on the big afternoon with cases of Crackerjack stacked in the back of his pickup. My mom took one look at all those boxes and thought he’d blown the mortgage for the month.  All he said was: “Don’t worry about it, Ev…they fell off a truck.” Anyway, the front hall was piled high with Crackerjack when I left the house that night to trick or treat.  We lived on a hill, but word got out. All the Crackerjack was gone by the time I got home, and my dad was handing out change from my piggy bank. I always have to laugh remembering that, though I didn’t think it was particularly funny at the time.

2.What, to you, is the scariest place in your hometown?

I grew up in Vallejo, California. The spot that really sticks out for me is Lake Herman Road, in particular the stretch of country two-lane that leads to the place where the Zodiac Killer murdered two teenagers. When I was a teenager myself, we’d cruise out there in the middle of the night, kill the headlights and the engine, kill the radio, and let the car drift in neutral until someone freaked out. Usually it didn’t take very long.  Something lingers there.

3.Which person in your life has had the biggest influence on your writing career?

If we’re talking writers, probably Stephen King and Joe R. Lansdale. Other than that, I’d say my dad. He was a born storyteller, and the first yarns I remember are the ones he spun in the backyard on summer evenings–especially the weird stories about a house with bloody footprints and the Green Man, which came from his boyhood in Pennsylvania. I still remember the excitement I felt hearing those tales for the first time, and I try to recapture a little of that when writing my own stories. I want to get the reader’s blood pumping.

4.If you could change one thing about your writing career, what would it be?

I’d type “The End” more often.  Right now, that’s my goal.

5.Three episodes you always try to catch whenever a Twilight Zone marathon airs?

I could probably give you ten, but here are three that come to mind:

“The Passerby”: Serling’s meditation on the Civil War, with a faded Southern belle and a wounded Confederate passing a dark evening together. The ending always gets me. Line for line, one of Serling’s best episodes.

“The Grave”: A weird western with Lee Marvin, Strother Martin, James Best, and Lee Van Cleef. What’s not to like? Plus, it reminds me of those stories my dad told in the backyard when I was a kid.

“Nick of Time”: A husband and a wife encounter a fortune-telling machine in a diner just south of Nowhere, U.S.A. This episode is my favorite example of what made Twilight Zone special. There are no special effects–just a great story, smart dialogue, and a cast that delivers (i.e. William Shatner as the desperate male lead? I’m sold!).

6.What was your favorite horror movie monster when growing up (and today, if different)?

I’ll stick with the Universal gang, and probably always will. My favorite is the Wolfman (a.k.a. Lawrence Talbot). And Kharis. What can I say? The cursed guys speak to me.

 

 

Pick Six [plus a bonus question in honor of the author’s birthday] with David Herter (originally posted 10/31/12)

A graduate of the 1990 Clarion West Workshop, David Herter is the author of Ceres StormEvening’s EmpireOn the Overgrown PathThe Luminous Depthsand One Who Disappeared.  His 2010 novel October Dark (part of Earthling’s Halloween Series) has recently been revised (expanded with new scenes and tightened by some 20,000 words) for ebook release.

1.If you could collaborate with any living writer, who would you choose, and why?

Well, since it’s Halloween, how about a departed one–Catherine Lucille Moore? Which I guess makes me Henry Kuttner. Working in tandem as they did, it would be a giddy pleasure to sit down at the typewriter just after she’d finished her portion in the midst of a sentence, then carry forward a masterpiece like “Clash by Night” so that the heating bills could be paid.

2.What is the best book you have read in the past year?

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers. Best. Vampire. Book. Ever.

3.What is the best writing advice you ever received?

“If you can’t make it good, make it short.”–Gene Wolfe

4.Which person in your life has had the biggest influence on your writing career?

Briony Travers, my mom. She grew up in wartime Britain and Australia, was a librarian after college in Illinois, then married and became a housewife. Throughout a life of painfully deteriorating health, books were her sustenance. She loved mysteries most of all (Ruth Rendall, P.D. James), and biographies, but also Stephen King and Thomas Harris. She had a subscription to Publisher’s Weekly to keep apprised of the forthcoming titles. She could quote freely from Shakespeare and Tennyson. She knew a little something about everything.

5.What did you enjoy most about writing your last book?

My latest is a revision of my 2010 novel October Dark for ebook release. I enjoyed finally achieving the book I set out to write–sharpening the plot, weeding out the excessive nostalgia, darkening the horror. I also enjoyed delving more into the “lost film,” Dark Carnival, that haunts the book. In our world it’s a movie that Ray Bradbury tried and failed to make, eventually becoming the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. In my book the film was made but quickly vanished from sight, holding in its frames an optical curse against an undying Phantasmagoria magician and his dead love, a witch. The movie is a chess-piece in a decades-long battle between the magician and special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien. All hell breaks loose on Halloween, 1977.

6.What are you working on now?

The Cold Heavens. An epic space opera with an eschatological twist, inspired by Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore and the occult novels of the Austrian fantasist Gustav Meyrink. I’ve had a great time reading/rereading all of their works, as well as delving into German Romanticism, Fin de siecle Decadence and the Weimar era in Berlin. The resulting 275,000 words are set on Mars, Venus, and beyond, with a sequence in the heart of the book set in Meyrink’s haunted Prague. It’s the first of two books.

7.Your Mt. Rushmore of four all-time favorite writers?

Of horror writers? It would make for an eerie skyline at dusk. Robert Aickman, Gustav Meyrink, Shirley Jackson, and Manly Wade Wellman.

 

 

Pick Six with James Newman (originally posted 3/25/11)

James Newman is author of the novels Midnight Rain and The Wicked, novellas such as Holy Rollers and The Forum, and the short story collection People Are Strange.  His latest novel, Animosity, comes from Necessary Evil Press, and bears a subtitle that resonates throughout the Macabre Republic: “An American Horror Story.”

1.What is the best writing advice you ever received?

Less is more. It’s all about the flow. Why use 100 words to say what can be said in 10? I prefer crisp, clean, lean ‘n mean prose that doesn’t waste a word. It’s what I like to read, so naturally it’s how I enjoy writing.

2.What is your greatest phobia?

That one’s easy: spiders. It’s worse than you could ever imagine, dude. I see one in the house, I start yelling for my wife or 11-year-old son to come kill it. I firmly believe that spiders are pure Evil on eight legs. Just sitting here thinking about those friggin’ things gives me goosebumps.

3.What did you enjoy most about writing your latest book?

The fact that I was writing (what I hope is) a disturbing horror novel set in the real world, populated by real people affected by events that could really happen. Animosity is about a bestselling horror writer whose neighbors turn against him after he finds the body of a murdered child, as they believe there must be some connection between the subject matter of his novels and his tragic discovery (because who could make up such twisted stuff without being a little sick in the head to begin with, right?). While what happens to my protagonist might seem a little far-fetched when things are at their worst for him, I don’t think there’s anything in Animosity that’s impossible. Or improbable, for that matter. People scare me, and the things we humans are capable of is more terrifying to me than vampires or werewolves or zombies. It doesn’t take much at all for folks we thought were our friends to transform into monsters, when they allow themselves to be misled by prejudice, gossip, and/or a mob mentality.

Humans might be scarier than spiders, in fact. But just barely. 😉

4.What excites you about the project you are working on now?

That it’s sort of a departure from what I normally do. The novel I’m working on right now is called Ugly As Sin, and it’s not a horror novel at all. It is a very dark story, but if I had to categorize it I guess I’d call it “white trash noir.” It’s a book influenced by the likes of Joe R. Lansdale, my favorite writer. Very Southern, with characters who might be hideous on the outside but beautiful on the inside, and vice versa.

I’m very proud of this one. I’ve had more fun writing Ugly As Sin than anything I’ve written to date. I can’t wait for folks to read it.

5.What do you think readers would be most surprised to learn about you?

That I’m a Christian. However, I say that with a loud disclaimer. I don’t consider myself to have anything in common with the kinds of people most folks think of when they hear the word “Christian.” I’m not a fan of organized religion, and can’t stand most of the bigoted, close-minded assholes associated with it. If that’s Christianity, then maybe I’m not a Christian at all…

Besides, I cuss too much.

6.Which one of your books would you most like to see developed into a movie, and who would be your dream cast for that film?

I think Midnight Rain would make a wonderful movie. Haven’t really thought about casting it in my mind, but it sounds fun.

For Kyle Mackey: how about Chandler Riggs (“Carl” from The Walking Dead)? He’s a little young at the moment, but he’d work. For his big brother Dan, who Kyle looks up to in more ways than one…gonna throw in an off-the-wall pick that only my fellow die-hard Tar Heels basketball fans will get: Jackson Simmons. Maybe Catherine Keener as their mom, Darlene? She never fails to impress. As poor  “Rooster,” the young man framed for a crime he did not commit: Al Shearer (Glory Road). And as the despicable villain of the piece, Sheriff Burt Baker, I’ve got to go with Michael Rooker. He’d be just about perfect.

 

Big, Black, and Orange: A Review of The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories

The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories: Terrifying Tales Set on the Scariest Night of the Year! Edited by Stephen Jones. Skyhorse Publishing, 2018.

Featuring twenty-six stories (and one poem), and weighing in at over 500 pages, Jones’s anthology certainly fulfills its titular claims of prodigiousness. Some of the High Holiday highlights within:

From its baroque title to its weird and unsettling imagery, James Ebersole’s “The Phenakisticope of Decay” (concerning trick-or-treaters’ encounter with a sinister low-tech cartoon-viewing device) reads like a product of Thomas Ligotti’s Nightmare Factory. The story’s ending perhaps falls a bit short of the mark, but that doesn’t detract from the macabre magnificence that precedes it.

Storm Constantine’s “Bone Fire” burns bright as the author rekindles Halloween’s Celtic roots. This tale of demons, fairies, and pagan celebrations is both beautifully written and suffused with sharp plot twists.

I love science-fictional variations on the Halloween tale (e.g., Al Sarrantonio’s “Red Eve”; Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still”), and Lisa Morton’s “The Ultimate Halloween Party App” can now be added to that short list. Morton’s story of rampant terrorism and neurotechnological misdeed downloads a rollicking monster mash into readers’ imaginations.

Set in Finland, Michael Marshall Smith’s “The Scariest Thing in the World” invokes Halloween in a more philosophical manner, and the referent of its title is not some facile frightener. The narrative simmers and simmers…until it reaches its explosive final line.

Thana Niveau’s “White Mare” presents Americans abroad and accosted by an angry mob of villagers on Halloween night. The strange customs maintained here in the English countryside are enough to make the festivities in The Wicker Man seem like a gathering around a cozy campfire.

These are all original pieces, but the strongest entries in the anthology (which opens with Neil Gaiman’s classic Bradbury homage, “October in the Chair”) are its reprints. Angela Slatter’s “The October Widow” combines an intimate tale of love and loss with hints of an autumnal apocalypse. Renowned for his darkly comedic voice, Joe R. Lansdale reminds us what a harrowing raconteur he also is in “The Folding Man”–a supernatural take on the “black car” legend. Ramsey Campbell establishes himself once again as the master of the creepy detail in “Her Face,” and Christopher Fowler’s narrator “Lantern Jack” regales listeners with the history of a haunted (especially on Halloween) London pub built on an ancient, ignis-fatuus-producing peat bog.

As is the case with most Jones anthologies, non-American authors dominate the table of contents here. So for those residing in our macabre republic, this collection might prove not quite what was expected (there’s rare display of U.S. settings/holiday observances). But while The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories ultimately does not stack up to last year’s Ellen-Datlow-and-Lisa-Morton-edited anthology Haunted Nights (reviewed here), it still warrants top-shelf slotting in the Halloween fiction lover’s library.

 

Trick or Treat (Book Review)

One more import from the Macabre Republic blog, this time of a review that I posted in 2012.

 

Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton (Reaktion Books, 2012)

The latest nonfiction study of the October holiday by Morton (author of The Halloween Encyclopedia) can be summed up in two words: impressively comprehensive.

Trick or Treat takes a “look at both the history of the festival and its growth around the world in the twenty-first century.” The book traces the Celtic origins of Halloween, its evolution in the British Isles, its transportation to America and subsequent proliferation worldwide. Along the way, readers learn about every Halloween custom and ritual imaginable.

The book works more as a survey than a critical analysis (when Morton operates in the latter mode, she has a penchant for employing the waffling phrasing “It’s probably no coincidence that…”). Chapters focusing on Great Britain and the global variations of the holiday will probably be of less interest to the average American reader, but the long final chapter covering Halloween’s manifold manifestations in pop culture is worth the price of purchase alone. Overall, Trick or Treat brims with informational goodness; the volume promises to serve as a valuable reference tool for folklorists, fiction writers, and Halloween aficionados alike.

 

Halloween Nation (Book Review)

Another re-post, of a book review that appeared on the Macabre blog during the 2011 Halloween season.

 

Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne (Pelican Publishing Company, 2011)

America’s leading black-and-orange journalist returns to investigate and celebrate the October holiday season. In Halloween Nation, Bannatyne poses the key questions (the most overarching one being: “What does Halloween mean right now and what purpose does it serve?”) and considers all the relevant elements (witches, ghosts, zombies, pumpkins, pranksters, etc.). Her study is at once fascinatingly informative (in particular the chapter tracing the origin of the jack-o’-lantern) and endlessly entertaining. Bannatyne writes with a sense of humor, a prose style reminiscent of Mary Roach (whose work she cites). For instance, when learning of the amazing growth rate of giant-sized pumpkins, the author observes: “Forty pounds a day? That’s like growing a six-year-old over the weekend.” Describing a weigh-off of such gargantuan gourds, Bannatyne offers: “When a 1,180-pounder knocks the rest out of the competition, the crowd roars, and the pumpkin glides through the arena on the forklift like a plus-sized beauty queen on a parade float.”

All this is not to suggest that the author has taken a flippant attitude toward her subject matter, or that she didn’t work hard to produce this book. Like a Charles Kuralt for our macabre republic, Bannatyne spent two years on the road interviewing haunters, performers, and other holiday celebrants across the country. Halloween Nation is an undeniably democratic tome: Bannatyne doesn’t just forward her own ideas but gives voice to the perspectives of countless others. The book seems as populous throughout as the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade (which Bannatyne covers in Chapter Seven).

Brimming with brilliant color photos and illustrations, Halloween Nation is a perfect coffee table book to engross visitors to your home this October. The book’s written content (not to mention its extensive “Resources” appendix) is guaranteed to send you surfing the Internet to learn more about the people, places, and events Bannatyne discusses. Such extra-textual forays, though, will not keep you from delving eagerly back into Bannatyne’s pages again and again. I’m not waxing hyperbolic when I state that this insightful and delightful book is an absolute must-read for every unabashed Halloween-ophile.

 

Johnny Halloween (Book Review)

The review of this story collection first appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog in October 2010.

 

Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season by Norman Partridge (Cemetery Dance, 2010)

This slim yet bountiful volume collects Partridge’s Halloween-based short fiction written over the past two decades. The stories, though, are unified by more than the holiday at month’s end, as signaled by the two nonfiction pieces included here. In his Introduction, Partridge recounts growing up in the sixties as a “card-carrying monsterkid.” The Universal Monsters served as formative influences, and naturally Halloween constituted the most beloved night of the year. But there was another, non-cherished experience that imprinted Partridge’s childhood: in October 1969, Partridge was an eleven-year-old boy living in Vallejo, California, a town that the serial killer known as the Zodiac had chosen as his personal hunting ground. Chillingly, Partridge was forced to realize “that the scariest monsters wore human skin.” The author-to-be received an early lesson in American Gothic, as hinted at in his reaction to the police artist’s sketch of the Zodiac printed in the local newspaper: “His face was like the faces of a half-dozen fathers who lived in my very own neighborhood, right down to the horn-rim glasses. He could have been sitting at a breakfast table down the block, eating Corn Flakes while I stared at his picture on the front page.”

Partridge, in the autobiographical essay “The Man Who Killed Halloween,” elaborates on the shadow cast over his hometown by the Zodiac, noting that the killings were “like an urban legend come to life.” As suggested by the essay’s title, the Zodiac’s reign of terror also marked a loss of American innocence—neither Vallejo nor Halloween ever seemed to be the same again. The essay can shed only so much light on the still-unsolved mystery regarding the Zodiac, but it does provide the reader a much better understanding of why the adult Partridge’s fiction features Halloween masks as recurrent props and duplicitous human monsters as central characters.

The title story (originally published in Cemetery Dance magazine) is vintage Partridge: a bit of Halloween noir involving liquor store hold-ups (past and present), small-town intrigue, and an anti-heroic sheriff (indeed, there’s enough story packed into the pages of “Johnny Halloween” to make for a rousing feature-length film). In keeping with the theme of human monstrosity, the eponymous robber disguises himself with a pumpkin face—a mask that eventually (and symbolically) is taken possession of by the narrating sheriff. But I’ll let you find out for yourself what ol’ Dutch decides to do with it…

“Satan’s Army,” meanwhile, is comprised of an itinerant evangelist (who’s not content to merely preach about the evils of Halloween) and his fervent minions. The tale is pure American Gothic, even including an elderly “Mother” and “Dad” couple who appear to be the perfect neighbors but are actually busy splicing razorblades into apples. And surprise, surprise, a Halloween mask (in this case, the burlap hood of a scarecrow) proves central to the story.

“Treats” has long been a personal favorite Partridge story of mine. The brief tale opens with a mother named Maddie shopping for Halloween candy in the supermarket, and then gets progressively creepier as we learn why she is so harried. Her tyrannical monster of a son “Jimmy was at home with them. He’d said that they were preparing for Operation Trojan Horse.” Fans of golden-age horror/sci-fi cinema will have no trouble identifying the inhuman “them” that Jimmy commands.

In his Introduction to the book, Partridge notes the prevalence of cemeteries (inhabited by “some pretty disturbing monsters,” human and otherwise) in his fiction. “Black Leather Kites” forms a perfect instance of this. The story, tracing the dark machinations of devil-cultist werebats on Halloween night, is enjoyable not just for its wonderfully weird plot but for the humorous banter between the deputy protagonist and his brother-in-law.

Like “Black Leather Kites,” “Three Doors” climaxes in a cemetery. The tale involves a physically- and psychologically-wounded veteran who paints his prosthetic hand black for Halloween in the hopes of gaining magical powers (that will in turn help effect his elopement with the girl he loves). Plot-wise, this is probably the least effective entry in the book; I suspect that some readers will be disappointed by the conclusion of this highly self-conscious story. Nonetheless, Partridge’s hard-boiled voice resounds like the brusque knocks of the protagonist’s fist.

The one piece original to the collection, “The Jack O’ Lantern,” makes Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season a must-have even if you are already familiar with the other selections. This volume-concluding novelette serves as a prequel to Partridge’s incredible Halloween novel Dark Harvest. The narrative is at once action-packed and contemplative, reflecting upon what it’s like to grow up living in a strictly dead-end town.

If you want to treat yourself to some fine reading this Halloween season, trek on over to Cemetery Dance and drop a copy of Johnny Halloween into your goody bag.

 

Halloween: New Poems (Book Review)

Another re-post, of a review that appeared on the Macabre blog way back in 2010.

Halloween: New Poems, Edited by Al Sarrantonio (Cemetery Dance Publications, 2010)

The Halloween Season is fast approaching, and what better way to ready for it than to read this delightful anthology put together by renowned October scribe Al Sarrantonio (HorrorweenHallows EveHalloweenland). Halloween: New Poems collects 41 (i.e. 10 + 31) pieces of original work by 19 different luminaries in the horror genre (and also features stellar artwork by Alan Clark and Keith Minion). Some of the standout poems are Steve Rasnic Tem’s “How to Play Dead,” which kicks off the book with an eerie narrative about a glutinous doorstep beggar, and Elizabeth Massie’s “Spider’s Night Out,” which  presents the holiday from the titular insect’s point of view. Tom Piccirilli’s “Phantom Pains” is a haunting tale of tragedy and remorse, and James A. Moore’s “Autumn” wonderfully matches the bereft mood of the speaker to the season’s dying landscape. Sarrantonio himself weighs in with a trio of amusing poems whose concise lines read like a cross between Ray Bradbury and Emily Dickinson. Perhaps the highlight of the book, though, is the inclusion of the first-ever published verse by Joe R. Lansdale. Lansdale’s distinctive style and darkly comedic worldview are on display in a half-dozen entries, including the gloriously grisly “Observing Nature on Halloween Night.”

Halloween: New Poems features a surprising number of pieces that employ quick-fire rhymes, which at times give the contents of the book a sing-song quality. But Bradley Denton, whose “Cap’n Hook (A Tale of the Prairie)” forms the longest (and most visceral) selection in the anthology, seems wryly self-aware of the limerick-like quality of its stanzas. Take, for example, the following excerpt, in which a group of teenage farmhands lust after the boss’s daughter:

Now wait just a minute,”
piped up both of the Bobs.
“I saw her this morning
“when we came for the job.

“She was there by the barn
“as we got in the truck.
She was watchin’ and grinnin’
“like she wanted to–”

“Hold on now!” snapped Jimmy.
“Y’all can just stop it!
“We’re here to throw bales,
“not to spread lies and gossip!”

At $40, the price of the trade hardcover will no doubt be steep for the non-collector–especially considering that the slim volume can be read in about an hour. At the same time, though, this is the type of book that you’ll eagerly pull off your shelf year after year; such assured treasuring makes Halloween: New Poems a worthy investment in October festiveness.

 

Short Story Glory: “We, the Fortunate Bereaved” by Brian Hodge

Imported from the Macabre Republic: a post that first appeared on the old blog back in October 2013.

Dark Harvest meets Pet Sematary meets “The Lottery” in Brian Hodge’s “We, the Fortunate Bereaved” (anthologized in Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre). But this is not to suggest that Hodge’s narrative is derivative in the least; the story is stunningly original, and presents a masterful mix of American Gothic and Halloween themes.

The isolated rural community of Dunhaven isn’t like other towns, and its Halloween rituals are undeniably unique. October’s closing night “brought more than just trickery and mischief. In Dunhaven, genuine magic, dark magic, pierced the veil on All Hallows Eve.” Each Halloween, a scarecrow figure stationed in the town square animates with the spirit of a resident who died within the past year. According to custom, the particular returnee is determined by the personally-significant memorabilia left at the foot of the scarecrow’s cross. Right up until the time the eldritch effigy climbs down from its post, it’s unknown which decedent will be communicating with his family from the beyond. This uncertainty supercharges the town–and the story itself–with tension and suspense as the night of the visitation approaches.

Hodge extrapolates brilliantly from this premise, dramatizing the emotional toll the situation has on the survivors of the annual decedents and exploring whether such postmortem reunion is truly a blessing or a curse. The author also shows the effect the rite has on Dunhaven as a whole, inspiring “a deep legacy of secrecy” and turning the town insular (“the last thing [the townspeople] wanted was a tide of incomers desperately seeking assurance of life after death, driving up the property tax base in the process”). But the most intriguing development of all is the “sabotage” and “subterfuge” that attends the Halloween event. Some Dunhavenites pull out all the stops–to ensure their loved one will vivify the scarecrow, or to prevent the revelation of incriminating deeds. As the protagonist Bailey notes, “the dead had secrets, and sometimes the living had a powerful interest in making sure both stayed on the other side, unseen, unheard.”

An incredible sense of anticipation builds as the narrative takes readers through Halloween day and evening. When the climax finally occurs, Hodge provides a pair of terrific plot twists (you might think you know how this story will end up, but you’ll likely be wrong). Ultimately, the narrative reminds us that masking is not just germane to Halloween but to everyday life, with the veil of civility disguising heinous natures.

“We, the Fortunate Bereaved” is an instant classic, and as good a piece of Halloween literature as I have ever read. It perfectly embodies the subtitle of Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre, which (as I attested in my earlier review) is an enjoyable anthology overall, but is worth owning for this amazing autumn tale alone.

 

Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre (Book Review)

The following is a re-post of a review that appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2013.

 

Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre. Edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2013).

Guran’s previous high-holiday effort, 2011’s Halloween, was an indisputable October treasury; perhaps its only drawback was that it consisted strictly of reprints, meaning that ardent fans of Halloween fiction were likely to have encountered many of the selections before. But Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre poses no such problem, presenting readers with eighteen (highly) original stories. Some of the standouts:

• “Thirteen” by Stephen Graham Jones. A tale (the best of its kind since Joe Hill’s “Twentieth Century Ghost”) that takes the haunted theater motif in a startlingly different direction. Jones effortlessly blends small-town reality with supernatural sinisterness.

• “The Mummy’s Heart” by Norman Partridge. This one features a monster kid run amok, a psycho who’s seen one too many Karloff movies. The real fun, though, starts when dark crime shades over into dark fantasy. Lovers of the Universal monster movies will be enthralled by Partridge’s re-bandaging of the mummy mythos.

• “Long Way Home: A Pine Deep Story” by Jonathan Maberry. A quietly haunting piece in its own right, this narrative is also noteworthy for its depiction of Pine Deep several years after the cataclysmic events of the novel trilogy (cf. Stephen King’s “One for the Road”). “Long Way Home” excitingly suggests that Maberry is a long way from done with mining the Most Haunted Town in America for story material.

• “The Halloween Men” by Maria V. Snyder. The most Bradbury-esque entry in the anthology, but the Bradbury of the dystopian “Usher II” more than Something Wicked This Way Comes. Snyder’s alternate-Venice setting is captivating, and her carnivalesque reworking of the idea of the Halloween mask is terribly clever.

• “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still” by Caitlin R. Kiernan. A work that transports readers to a colonized Mars in the far future, yet hearkens back to the ancient Celtic roots of Halloween. Kiernan’s story is to be cherished both for its diligent world-building and its mesmerizing prose.

• “We, the Fortunate Bereaved” by Brian Hodge. The best treat in the whole goody bag.  I’ll have more to say about this piece in a subsequent post.

As its subtitle heralds, Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre offers a variety of genre approaches to the October holiday. The anthology furnishes ample proof that new tricks can be wrung from old tropes, so here’s hoping that Guran (who bookends the contents with an entertaining intro and editor bio) continues to solicit groundbreaking stories and produces additional all-new Halloween ensembles in the coming autumns.