Halfway There

Season’s Dreamings from the Macabre Republic…

We’re only six months away now from the Great Day; for all those hardcore Halloween lovers out there in the Land of Red, Black, and Blue, it’s time to start planning costumes, designing home haunts, and scouting attractions. It’ll be October before you know it!

And for those who just can’t wait for Samhain, check out Mr. and Mrs. Halloween’s splendid article “Halfway to Halloween: 10 Ways to Celebrate the Unofficial Holiday.”

It promises to be an awesome autumn, as a new Halloween movie hits theaters (on the 40th anniversary of the John Carpenter classic), and Stranger Things happen at Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights. Personally, I have several special projects in the works, so keep an eye on this site in the coming months. In the meantime:

HAPPY HALFWAY TO HALLOWEEN!!!

Five for Frightening, Part Five

Last (belated) stop on the Halloween Carnival review circuit…

Volume 5 opens with a story from the owner of Cemetery Dance Publications himself, Richard Chizmar. “Devil’s Night” (first published in 1996, and previously reprinted in 2012 as a Halloween Short Story ebook) is a fine piece of night-before-Halloween noir: a tale of infidelity and murder, told by an everyman narrator (a high school English teacher) who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the best dark-crime fiction, “Devil’s Night” (which tellingly surnames one of its characters “Cain“) shines because of the voice recounting the vice and violence.

Lisa Tuttle’s “The Last Dare” is slow to unfold, but ultimately proves an unsettling piece of quiet horror (concerning a seemingly witch-haunted “tower house”). The employment of a grandmother protagonist here makes for a fresh variation on the traditional Halloween tale.

In “The Halloween Bleed (A Dr. Sibley Curiosity),” Norman Prentiss offers an interesting premise: that Halloween’s darkly magical influence can carry over to other days. While engaging in its depiction of sorcerous intrigue, the story simultaneously distances the reader because it feels like a snippet from a larger narrative tapestry (admission: I have not read any of Prentiss’s other tales of the sinister academic Bennet Sibley).

To my surprise, Kevin Quigley’ “Swing” deals not with some haunted piece of playground equipment but with swing music. Credit might have been due for taking an unusual angle onto the holiday theme, except that Halloween is only touched upon obliquely here. Featuring an uncertain narrator who poses questions to the very end, this one is a bit of a tedious read.

Closing out the volume and the series is another tale mixing music (in this case, jazz) and Halloween mayhem: Peter Straub’s 1994 novella “Pork Pie Hat” (first published in Murder for Halloweenand also included in Cemetery Dance’s classic anthology October Dreams). Straub, though, produces much more elegant prose than Quigley, and his tale grips the reader with its nested narratives, its atmospheric trek into the backwoods of the racially-tense Deep South (shades of Harper Lee), and its element of mystery that is maintained right up until the final paragraphs. “Pork Pie Hat” is an immaculately crafted tale, filled with haunting images and striking lines, such as the following proclamation by the eponymous musician: “Most people will tell you growing up means you stop believing in Halloween things–I’m telling you the reverse. You start to grow up when you understand that the stuff that scares you is part of the air you breathe.”

With three middling stories sandwiched between two stellar (yet familiar) reprints, Halloween Carnival Volume 5 is a must-have only for the series completist.

Five For Frightening, Part Four

Catching up with my reviews of Cemetery Dance’s seasonal anthology series, Halloween Carnival

In the fourth volume’s opener, “The Mannequin Challenge” by Kealan Patrick Burke, a curmudgeonly coworker reluctantly attends an office Halloween party, only to discover the expected revelers all frozen in lifeless pose. The squirming reader, though, will be anything but unmoved after witnessing what unfolds from this scene of strange stasis.

Unsurprisingly, considering that Ray Garton is the author, “Across the Tracks” offers the most adult content in the ebook. A trio of trick-or-treaters encounter not only foul-mouthed and sexually-perverse bullies, but also a bizarre scene of naked paganism. Garton’s transgressive story also appropriately defies neat moral wrap-up, ending instead with a nasty twist.

Bev Vincent channels Bradbury in “The Halloween Tree,” but the oaken totem of the title proves much darker than the pumpkin-lit specimen famously spied by Pipkin’s friends. I have always been a fan of dead/creepy-looking trees in nature and literature, and the one featured here is positively rotten to the core.

In “Pumpkin Eater,” C.A. Suleiman serves up a slice of E.C. Comics-style comeuppance. While fairly predictable in its plotting, the tale is enriched by its sardonic tone and the unfriendly banter of a husband and wife on the verge of a deadly parting. Good, mean fun.

The volume’s lone reprint, Paul Melniczek’s novella “When the Leaves Fall,” opens in Bradburyesque fashion: a pair of young, mildly-mischievous Halloween lovers have their innocence tested by an encounter with something wicked in their small town. There’s a strong American Gothic vibe to the piece, with its sinister farm setting and townspeople characters plagued by a terrible secret. The problem is, the dark forces at work are kept in the shadows for far too long; suspense is counteracted as the plot drags on and the first-person narration grows overwrought (frequently lapsing into the melodramatic rhetoric of some Lovecraftian stumbler upon unnameable horrors).

Comprising half the book’s length, the underwhelming concluding novella feels like filler. This editorial misstep unfortunately renders the fourth leg of Halloween Carnival‘s October-long journey rather pedestrian.

 

October Carryover

The High Holiday of the Macabre Republic has come and gone, but if you haven’t accomplished everything you set out to do (I’m still catching up with the final two volumes of Cemetery Dance’s Halloween Carnival series; reviews to be posted in the coming days) and aren’t ready yet to bid farewell to the season, here are some assorted treats:

*Read horror author J.G. Faherty’s essay “Why Do We Love Halloween?”

*Experience the 2017 Halloween Poetry Reading hosted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association

*Catch up with the posts on the top-notch Halloween blog The Skeleton Key

*Follow a countdown of “The 10 Best Halloween Costumes From Your Favorite TV Characters”

*View Bloody Disgusting’s gallery of This Year’s Coolest Halloween Costumes

*Check out highlights from the 2017 Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village:

*Watch Treehouse Digital’s tricksy short film, Treaters:

*Find out how Michael Myers manages to get through “November 1st”:

 

Keeping the porch lights on…

Black Cat Variations: Nine Further Lives of Poe’s Frightful Feline

No one has done more than Poe to popularize the black cat as an animal of ill-omen (and perhaps active supernatural menace). In the years since its first publication in 1843, Poe’s “The Black Cat” has returned in an array of dark forms. Here are nine terrific instances:

1.”The Black Cat” by Gino Severini (1910-11)

Decades before ever being projected onto the big screen, Poe’s story was splashed across canvas by Italian Futurist painter Gino Severini. The image is at once dizzying and disturbing, with its depiction of dismemberment and a glassful of suspiciously crimson liquor. No doubt Poe’s “The Black Cat” (notice the doubling of the titular creature) is aptly adapted here; the Cubist-derived aesthetic of simultaneity also captures the Gothic sense of the past impinging upon the present.

 

2.The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)

Murderous schemes are unfortunately foiled in this classic roman noir (“And the cat came back! It stepped on the fuse box and got killed, but here it is back!” the femme fatale Cora exclaims toward’s novel’s end). The debt to Poe becomes more glaring in the final chapter, which shapes the narrative as the confession of a condemned man (charged with the death of the “hellcat” Cora, whose gruesome demise in a traffic accident might actually have been prompted by the narrator’s subconscious disgust).

 

3.Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

A killer attempts to conceal the body of his female victim in the basement, but is tormented by an intrusive white cat (that embodies his overwhelming dread of the dominant culture). With its imagery of maiming and lynching, Poe’s story has been read as a veiled critique of Southern slavery, but Richard Wright brings racial matters to the unmistakable forefront. In the closing lines of his accompanying essay, “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright boldly states: “[W]e have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.”

 

4.”The Cat from Hell” by Stephen King (1977)

Anticipating Pet Sematary‘s Church (intriguingly, King’s short story also features a character surnamed Gage who dies in a horrific car accident), the eponymous demonic creature simultaneously hearkens back to Poe with its terrible resilience (its “half black, half white” face” recalls the streak of white ringing the neck of its counterpart in “The Black Cat”). King ultimately outdoes Poe for grotesquerie, as the latter’s suggestion of necrophagy at tale’s end here develops into something much more graphic and visceral.

 

5.”The White Cat” by Joyce Carol Oates (1987)

An upper-crust husband sinks to awful depths, as his repeated attempts to off his wife’s white Persian cat prove uncannily ineffective. Oates’s story, much longer than Poe’s and narrated in the third person, deftly probes the psyche of the antagonistic husband, whose unacknowledged hostility towards his (much younger and perhaps adulterous) wife is seemingly displaced onto a pet likewise indifferent to his attentions.

 

6.The Matrix (1999)

Poe occasionally authored what can be retroactively classified as science fiction, and has had his works memorably adapted as such (e.g. Ray Bradbury’s Mars-set homage “Usher II“). Still, one wouldn’t expect “The Black Cat” to pop up in the Wachowksi Brothers’ post-cyberpunk mindbender. But that’s exactly what happens when protagonist Neo twice sees the ebon animal cross his path. Such deja vu is explained as a computer glitch, but the echoes of Poe grow even stronger when Neo and friends (trying to evade the Matrix’s relentless Agents) subsequently secret themselves behind the walls of the Gothic building.

 

7.Masters of Horror: The Black Cat (2007)

The various screen adaptions of “The Black Cat” over the years have been merely nominal or hardly phenomenal, but not so this Stuart Gordon-directed episode of the Showtime anthology series. While it doubtless does a disservice to Poe by equating him with one of his own madman narrators, this purported origin story of the composition of “The Black Cat” cleverly blurs author biography and dark fantasy. It is also includes the most cringe-inducing (cat’s) eye-gouging scene ever filmed.

 

8.”Cats in the Catacombs” by Kristin Lawrence (2009)

The renowned Halloween Caroler Lawrence (who has also set Poe’s “The Raven” to music) likely proceeds more from a sense of wordplay, but the prominent image of a mouser inside a human tomb is nonetheless suggestive. The black cat that provides background yowls for the song’s recording adds another Poesque touch.

 

9.”Phoenix” by Chuck Palahniuk (2013)

The high notes from Poe (a despised sable pet, a spectacular house fire, the theme of retribution) echo throughout Palahniuk’s offbeat and wickedly witty rendering (involving a robotic vacuum cleaner, kitty litter, and toxoplasmosis). The key difference between the two compositions, though, is that here the obsessive, intemperate, and devious viewpoint character is the wife, not the husband.

Ulalume and Ulalume II

Time and again, Edgar Allan Poe showed us that his male narrators were not to be trusted, but are the speakers of his poems any less unreliable in their expression of grief? My sequel to Poe’s most October-centric work was written with this idea in mind. In “Ulalume II” (first published in Autumn Lauds), the deceased female figure finally gets a chance at poetic redress.

This particularly dreary night in the late October (a squall rages outside my window as I type these words) seems the perfect time to pair up the texts of Poe’s original ballad and my own poem.

 

He said:

Ulalume

by Edgar Allan Poe

The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere,
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year.
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir–
It was down by the dark tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul–
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll–
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphorous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole–
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere–
Our memories were treacherous and sere–
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year–
(Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
We noted not the dim lake of Auber–
(Though once we had journeyed down here)–
Remembered not the dark tarn of Auber,
Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

And now, as the night was senescent
And star-dials pointed to morn–
As the star-dials hinted of morn–
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn–
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

And I said–“She is warmer than Dian;
She rolls through an ether of sighs–
She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears they are not dry on
These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion
To point us the path to the skies–
To the Lethean peace of the skies–
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
To shine on us with her bright eyes–
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
With love in her luminous eyes.”

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
Said: “Sadly this star I mistrust–
Her pallor I strangely mistrust:
Oh, hasten! oh, let us not linger!
Oh, fly!–let us fly–for we must.”
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
Wings until they trailed in thew dust–
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust–
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

I replied–“This is nothing but dreaming:
Let us on by this tremulous light!
Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybilic splendour is beaming
With Hope and in Beauty tonight!–
See!–it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
And be sure it will lead us aright–
We safely may trust to a gleaming,
That cannot but guide us aright,
Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom–
And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
But were stopped by the door of a tomb;
By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said: “What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?”
She replied: “Ulalume–Ulalume–
‘Tis the vault of the lost Ulalume!”

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere–
As the leaves that were withering and sere;
And I cried: “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed–I journeyed down here!–
That I brought a dread burden down here–
On this night of all nights of the year,
Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber–
This misty mid region of Weir–
Well I know, now, this dark tarn of Auber,–
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

 

She said:

Ulalume II

by Joe Nazare

You describe the skies as ashen and sober,
Establish the leaves as crisped and sere;
You mark the night in the lonesome October
And bemoan a most immemorial year.
Yet one key detail you gloss over–
Oh so conveniently you gloss over:
The smothering love that cost me dear.

In the dozen bloated moons since I died
You have looked out through a veil of gloom.
Copious the tears that you have cried
As you sunk into the role of forlorn groom.
But such utter self-delusion I cannot abide,
Knowing you were the blight on my natural bloom.

So dread not the dark tarn of Auber;
Disregard the ghoul-haunted woodlands of Weir.
Don’t stand atremble like some shocked rover,
Fretting that a demon has tempted you here.
On this ultimate night of October–
This final, eldritch night of October–
It’s only your aggrieved beloved you need fear.

The barrier between our worlds swings wide–
Hearken to the creaking door of this tomb,
And behold the shape of your ravishing bride
Waiting yearlong to escape her funereal room.
This triumphal evening grim truth won’t be denied;
Time at last for your deserved reunion with Ulalume.

Hammered Home (flash fiction)

This is the first publication of the following piece.

 

Hammered Home

by Joe Nazare

 

Neither one of them had a steady gait—Carlos because he was inebriated, Pat because he was in heels—when they stumbled upon the stranger.

It happened midway through the two-mile walk from the frat house back to campus. Pat had become Patty for the party, and Carlos was making a mock-lecherous grab for his Charmin-augmented bosom when he instead stopped and pointed.

Twenty feet ahead, dead center in the otherwise barren and woods-bracketed road, stood a figure in full clown regalia. Enormous sky-blue shoes that would have been a loose fit on Bigfoot. Baggy pantsuit that appeared to sport no pattern but rather a random spatter of red and brown. Greasepainted face, ball nose that looked like a plum tomato gone rotten. Two garish shocks of hair curving out from either side of the head, resembling nothing so much as devil’s horns.

“Creepy clown: cool,” Carlos pronounced.

To encounter someone in such outré attire wasn’t terribly unlikely on this last Saturday night in October, when a whole slew of pre-holiday celebrations no doubt raged. Still, instinctive wariness halted Pat’s steps. Carlos, meanwhile, continued on in fearless approach, his iPhone already in hand, raised and aimed.

“C’mon,” he called back to Pat, “we gotta put this up on YouTube.” Then, as he closed in on the clown: “Hey, man, wicked duds. Looks like you went shopping at Gacy’s.”

Pat swallowed, half-expecting the carnivalesque character to flash a shark’s grin and croak something like “They all float…”  But the clown kept silent, just posed motionless, with eyes downcast and hands thrust in pouch-like hip pockets.

“So, waiting for someone in particular, or will any body do?” Carlos asked, trying to get the clown to mug ghoulishly for the camera. He might as well have been prompting a mannequin. His static subject made one of those Buckingham Palace guards seem like a Tourette’s victim. Pat found the figure’s utter lack of animation deeply unsettling.

The inactive act only irked Carlos. His boozy grin flattened into a scowl as he lowered the phone and eyed the clown directly. “What, you got nothin’ to say for yourself?” Several seconds of mute affirmation led him to follow with: “Then you best use those floppy-ass shoes to step aside, Homey D., before you get busted upside the head.”

The stranger, though, wasn’t the one moved by the threat. Heels clacking against the macadam, Pat scampered to intercept Carlos. “Hey, take it easy,” he told him. But the second Pat stiffened his arm in attempted restraint, Carlos pressed even more aggressively towards his newfound foe. Carlos was costumed in a zoot suit tonight, but Pat couldn’t help but think that he was dealing here with a pair of clowns.

Sudden impatience flooded him. His buzz had worn off, he was tired, and his feet were killing him. The last thing he felt like doing right now was refereeing a bout between his hot-headed friend and some wannabe Pennywise.

“Can we just get the hell outta here?” he shot at Carlos, who, to his surprise, took an immediate step back. The drunken bravado drained from Carlos’s face, leaving him gaping. An instant later, Pat felt a hand clamp down onto his shoulder.

Cringing, Pat turned his head. The clown’s gaze was as intense, as invasive, as the muscle-cramping clench. Even worse was what the clown used to see with: the circus perversity had a pair of black balloons in lieu of irises and pupils. Any thought Pat might have entertained that these were merely special-FX contacts was obliterated when his leering assailant addressed him.

“Not Pennywise,” it corrected all-too-knowingly, while unpocketing and brandishing an outsized meat tenderizer: “Poundfoolish.”

 

In the Awesome October: A Review of Haunted Nights

In Haunted Nights, editors Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton hand out a wealth of holiday treats–sixteen assorted pieces, with not one stale Milk Dud in the mix.

Seanan McGuire leads off with “With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfbane Seeds,” a tale as surprising as it is superbly atmospheric. Yes, it centers on a looming manse “that looked like it belonged in a gothic romance,” but this is no ordinary haunted house (for one, it hasn’t fallen into disrepair despite being abandoned for decades), and its ghost has a most unusual effect on those it encounters. There is also an intriguing American Gothic vibe, as the story reflects on the town’s ongoing relationship with the Holston house. Sounding themes of teenage angst, alienation and loneliness, and the desperate search for friendship, the narrative offers much more than standard fright fare; it’s arguably the best haunted-house story since Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter.”

Another autumn icon that’s strongly represented in Haunted Nights is the jack-o’-lantern. In fact, the anthology features two separate stories that focus on the folkloric character of Stingy Jack–Joanna Parypinski’s “Wick’s End” and Pat Cadigan’s “Jack” (co-editor Morton covered the same subject herself in 2012’s “The Legend of Halloween Jack“). While both pieces traverse similar ground, they follow distinctive paths, presenting markedly different tones and perspectives (Parypinski’s piece is narrated by Stingy Jack himself, Cadigan’s by a witchy equivalent of a beat cop determined to bust up the eponymous character’s con game). In their ultimate diversity, these two tales are emblematic of the overall anthology, which impresses with its variegated nature. Not just Halloween but a host of October holidays are highlighted here, from Devil’s Night to Dia de los Muertos, Seelenwoche to Nos Galan Gaeaf. The tales also range from the modern-day (such as S.P. Miskowski’s “We’re Never Iniviting Amber Again,” where an adult party gathering takes a ghoulish turn) to the historical (Elise Forier Edie’s “All Through the Night,” set in squalid old New York, whose Five Points appear to be the home of both bad sorts and Good Folk).

The anthology undoubtedly fulfills its titular promise with its inclusion of several nightmarish works that linger in the reader’s mind. Garth Nix’s incredibly creepy “The Seventeen-Year Itch” concerns a self-mutilated insane-asylum patient with a maddening urge to scratch at his own chest–a compulsion that also becomes unbearable to all those around him every seventeen years on Halloween night. In “Witch Hazel,” Jeffrey Ford lures readers into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, whose dark woods are perhaps plagued by an agent born of something much more malefic than Mother Nature. John Langan imports postmodernism into the October Country in “Lost in the Dark,” the title of a heralded film that disturbingly blurs the line between dark fantasy and documentary realism. With its gripping plot, unnerving setting (deep within an abandoned mine) and terrifying antagonist (“Bad Agatha”), Langan’s novella begs for its own filmic adaption. If not in the local multiplex, expect to find “Lost in the Dark” coming soon to various Best of the Year collections.

I have always been especially fond of Halloween science fiction, and the last story here, “The First Lunar Halloween” by John R. Little, earns a place alongside such esteemed predecessors such as Al Sarrantonio’s “Red Eve” and Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still.” Little’s post-planetary-disaster tale casts a slanted light on earthly holiday traditions, while staging its own irrefutably spooky celebration (where Aliens form a dreadful presence without ever emerging front and center). The story closes on a downbeat note, with the protagonist’s disavowal of Halloween, but the reader of Haunted Nights will be left expressing a diametrically-opposed sentiment. This amazing anthology, stocked with names both familiar and fresh, proves that the autumnal tale is anything but played out at this point. Here’s hoping that the Horror Writers Association puts out a casting call once again, and the Morton and Datlow Pandemonium Show returns with a whole new set of attractions next Halloween season.

Anatomy of a Weird Tale–Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter”

The following is a re-posting of a piece that first appeared on the Macabre Republic blog back in 2010 (a forewarning: plot spoilers abound below, so do not continue reading if you have not already had the joy of experiencing this weird tale firsthand).

Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter” has been overshadowed by the author’s other Halloween novella, “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” (both are collected in The Two Sams: Ghost Stories), but actually might be the stronger of the pair of marvelous tales. Hirshberg builds suspense from the opening lines, as the teenage narrator Andrew recounts: “This was before we knew about Peter, or at least before we understood what we knew” (3). Immediately the reader wonders what Andrew’s precocious and mischievous friend has done, and why Andrew’s mother is now sitting “clutching her knees and crying in the television light.” Some terrible tragedy seems to have transpired.

Following this first, framing paragraph, Andrew flashes back to a few years earlier when he was twelve. He notes his after-school treks to the park with Peter Andersz that led them bustling past “the splintering, sagging blue walls of the Black Anchor Restaurant where Mr. Paars used to hunker alone and murmuring over his plates of reeking lutefisk when he wasn’t stalking Market Street, knocking pigeons and homeless people out of the way with his dog-head cane.” Coming at the end of a long sentence that lists several other landmarks on the route, this information about the restaurant and its diner might at first seem like merely incidental detail, yet ultimately Mr. Paars will prove integral to the story. Indeed, Hirshberg is quite adept at dropping hints while holding full revelation in abeyance. For instance, Andrew’s narrative focuses on a few Halloweens earlier, his “last night at the Andersz house” (6)–an admission that begs the question: did Andrew and Peter simply drift apart afterwards, or did something momentous happen on that Halloween night? Similarly, Andrew points out that his mother hadn’t even wanted him to go out that night: “Not with Peter. Not after last year” (6). The tantalized reader has to wait several pages before the detail about the prior  Halloween is filled in by Andrew, in defense of his clique’s misbehavior: “We hadn’t known anyone was hiding in those bushes when we toilet-papered them, and Peter meant to light his cigarette, not the roll of toilet paper” (13).

Hirshberg reels his readers in not just by crafting suspense but by creating a strong sense of setting. The dreary neighborhood of Ballard in Washington state is realized through skillful patches of description, such as Andrew’s explanation for why trick-or-treating isn’t that popular in his town: “Too wet and dismal, most years, and there were too many drunks lurking around places like the Black Anchor and sometimes stumbling down the duplexes, shouting curses at the dripping trees” (7). As Andrew, Peter, and their friends Jenny and Kelly Mack traverse the scene, black birds sit perched in the tree branches, “silent as gargoyles” (16); the canal’s water “swallow[s] the last streak of daylight like some monstrous whale gulping plankton”; and “seagulls dip[ ] and tumble[ ] on the wind like shreds of cloud that had been ripped loose” (17). At times the images and similes seem almost too masterful for a narrator supposedly in his mid-teens, but Hirshberg’s own mesmerizing prose makes such ostensible lapse from verisimilitude easy to ignore.

There’s also a discernibly oral quality to the narrative (as a schoolteacher, Hirshberg would entertain his students with recitations of his Halloween tales). When Andrew, with some editorializing from Peter, recounts “the night of the bell” (15) to the Mack sisters, he even admits to feeling “like a longshoreman, a lighthouse keeper, someone with stories who lived by the sea” (15). Andrew tells of a run-in he and Peter had with Mr. Paars on Halloween night two years earlier when they followed the cranky old man home from the Black Anchor. They discovered a strange gazebo on Paars’s property, containing “this giant white bell, like church bell, hanging from the ceiling on a chain.  And all the lights in the yard were aimed at it” (18). The lawn, meanwhile, had been scored with a weird, eye-like symbol, “a circle, with this upside-down triangle inside it” (19). Then, as Peter ventured towards the gazebo, “one of those dwarf trees [springing from Paars’s land] walked right off its roots into his path, and both of us started screaming” (22). It was no tree, of course, but Paars himself, who knocked Peter down with his cane and then smilingly informed the boys: “That bell raises the dead. Right up out of the ground” (23).

Andrew and Peter have seen little of Mr. Paars in the two years since that incident, but now Peter aims to lead his group of friends to the house for a belated return visit. When the quartet arrives, they spy an ominous domicile: “The house, like the [neighboring] sheds, seemed to have sunk sideways into the ground. With its filthy windows and rotting planks, it looked like the abandoned hull of a beached ship” (26). The front door is ajar, the furniture inside has been covered with ghostly white sheets, the windows have been thrown open and “[l]eaves chased each other across the dirt-crusted hardwood floor” (27). Hirshberg’s novella transcends a cliched premise (Halloween-night exploration of the town curmudgeon’s spooky home) through the inclusion of some genuinely eerie detail. Crossing into “what must have been Mr. Paars’s den,” Andrew and Jenny discover a huge desk topped with six framed pictures arranged in a semicircle:

Somehow, the fact that two of the frames turned out to be empty made the array even more unsettling. The other four held individual pictures of what had to be brothers and one sister–they all had flying white hair, icy blue eyes–standing, each in turn, on the top step of the gazebo outside, with the great bell looming behind them, bright white and all out of proportion, like the Mountain [Rainier] on a clear day. (28)

A second significant aspect of this exploration scene is Hirshberg’s crafty use of misdirection. Before stepping inside the house, Andrew spots a “flicker in the upstairs window. Maybe” (25). Then, once inside: “From under the half-closed door at the top of the staircase–the only door we could see from where we were–came a sudden slash of light that disappeared instantly like a snake’s tongue flashing in and out” (30). The flickering light proves to have come from an innocuous source (a nearby lighthouse that is illuminated each Halloween), but no sooner is this fact established than a soft tap of the bell in the yard is heard. Andrew and Peter figure the Mack sisters are just trying to scare them. Heading back downstairs, Andrew finds Kelly’s baseball cap lying in the middle of the foyer floor, and the front door swings inward to reveal a spray-painted rendition of the lawn hieroglyph. While gaping at it, Andrew suddenly feels a hand clamped across his mouth, but his seeming attacker turns out to be none other than Peter’s father. Mr. Andersz had followed the group of children out that night, and seeing where they headed, decided to seize an opportunity to scare his prankster son straight  (“To reach out. Reach him. Someone’s got to do something. He’s a good boy. He could be” [35]).

Mr. Andersz–sneaking up behind Peter, when he comes downstairs, and whispering “Boo”–succeeds in giving his son quite a scare. Peter bolts right out of the house and is fifteen feet away before he realizes he’s been had. His father explains that Mr. Paars had been very sick and had in fact died a week earlier, prompting Peter (eager to reassert his moxie) to declare, “Then he won’t mind […] if I go ahead and ring that bell” (38). Peter does just that, and in the climactic moment of the novella, Andrew (still standing on the front porch with his back to the house) sees his companions’ eyes goggle before everyone turns and flees. He hears a “single sharp thud from the porch behind me. Wood hitting wood. Cane-into-wood” (40). A second thump follows, spurring Andrew to tear off after his friends like the proverbial bat out of hell.

Back at the Andersz house later that night, the laughing group reminisces about the scare they received. Mr. Andersz explains that the figure who appeared on the porch was Mr. Paars’s brother (“He must have been inside when you all got there. He must have thought you were coming to rob the place, or vandalize it, and he went out back”). The brother had come to close down the house after Mr. Paars’s death; also, the reason the house’s windows had all been open was because Paars had been lying dead inside for days before being discovered and the place needed to be aired out.  It all seems like a nice, neat Scooby-Doo-type wrap-up, until Andrew relates: “I sat, and I sipped my cocoa, and I watched my friends chatter and eat and laugh and wave their arms around, and it dawned on me, slowly, that none of them had seen. None of them had heard. Not really” (41).  Andrew almost speaks up, but refrains, not wanting to spoil the fun on the Halloween evening. He also holds back, momentarily, from the reader what exactly he experienced in his final moments at the Paars place.

First, the narrative flashes back to the present, to Andrew and his mother seated before the TV. Peter has been arrested after going on a killing spree at school.  Watching the “live reports from the rubble of our school,” Andrew thinks back to Peter’s reaction to the prank played on him that night years earlier, and how Peter’s whole body “vibrat[ed] like an imploding building after the charge has gone off, right at the moment of collapse” (37). Andrew has always sensed a certain danger emanating from Peter, an emotional disturbance and potential volatility, and now that has manifested in an act of spectacular violence. Here, too, at novella’s end, one sees just how cleverly Hirshberg has riffed on the traditional story of Struwwelpeter. On the night back out at the Paars house, Jenny asks Andrew why Mr. Andersz called his son “Struwwelpeter” whenever Peter misbehaved, and Andrew explains that the name comes from “some kids’ book […] about a boy who got in trouble because he wouldn’t cut his hair or nails. […My mom] said Struwwelpeter looked like Freddy Krueger with a ‘fro” (29). Overhearing the conversation, Peter adds that Struwwelpeter was what his mom dubbed him when he was little: “When I kicked the shit out of barbers, because I hated having my haircut. Then when I was just being bad. She’d say that instead of screaming at me. It made me cry.” From such statement, one senses that the now-motherless Peter bears some serious emotional scars. The traditionally unpopular (because of his unkempt appearance) Struwwelpeter is thus updated as the maladjusted, alienated teen Peter. Also, in the various episodes of Struwwelpeter, the morally-conservative German book for children, wayward kids receive ironic comeuppance for their misdeeds, but here Hirshberg gives a wicked twist to such a plot dynamic. In the novella’s final turn of the screw, Andrew plans to sneak out of his house and go ring the bell in the gazebo: “And then we’ll know, once and for all, whether I really did see two old men with matching canes on the porch of the Paars house when I glanced back, right as I fled into the woods. Whether I really did hear rustling from all those sideways sheds as I flew past, as though, in each something was sliding out of the ground. I wonder if the bell only works on the Paars family, or if it affects any recently deceased in the vicinity” (42). Then, in one hell of a clincher, Andrew states: “And if [the dead] do come back–and if they’re angry, and they go looking for Peter, and they find him–well. Let the poor, brilliant, fucked-up bastard get what he deserves.”

“Struwwelpeter” is a wonderfully written, expertly paced ghost story that haunts not just with its supernatural aura but with its depiction of childhood angst. The novella should be required reading for any connoisseur of the weird tale–and every lover of Halloween scares.

WORK CITED

Hirshberg, Glen.  “Struwwelpeter.”  2001.  The Two Sams.  New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003.  3-42.

The Impotency of Positive Thinking

This poem was originally written for Autumn Laudsbut was ultimately barred from the Table of Contents (it riffs on a classic piece of science fiction, and I didn’t want to violate any copyright laws), but I have decided to post it here in celebration of the Halloween season.

 

The Impotency of Positive Thinking

Really, they’re too old to be dressing up,
Have no business begging for saccharine treats
On this thirty-first night of October.

But it can’t be helped, they’re compelled
To dare the doorstep of the uninviting edifice.
The House of Usher has nothing on this manse,
Looming, gloom-enshrouded, incredibly decrepit.

A trio sets off down the sinuous, tree-flanked path
While the rest remain nervously stationed at the sidewalk.
Tonight Bill is a straw-spilling scarecrow.
Thelma the image of a fairy princess, and
Pat impersonates monstrosity via a cheap plastic mask.

Carefully, they make their approach, knowing
He waits up ahead inside, hidden but vigilant.
They labor to banish negativity from their brains,
To deny thought of the potential punishment they might incur.
Arriving at last at the dark oaken door, they pause,
Then knock in unison, the raps resounding like gavel bangs.

The occupant’s response is sudden and stern:
Out of nowhere, a murder fells Scarecrow Bill,
The swooping birds hardly alarmed by the man’s costume.
Thelma meantime vaporizes, but the vanishing’s fathomable–
An instant internment, no doubt, in a deep cornfield grave.
And when Pat retreats streetside, fast as his arthritic hips allow,
His mask is absent, his face transformed into true grotesquerie.

Such capricious treatment is terrible to behold, but
No one ventures or even considers any complaint,
Certainly not when the perpetrator is within mindshot.
“The boy’s outdone himself this time,” Pat proclaims,
Forcing his distorted features into a semblance of a grin.
“What a fine trick he’s played,” a prostrate Bill enthuses
Amidst countless thumping wings and cacophonous caws.
“Oh, it’s a good Halloween,” Anthony’s prisoners all agree.