Regal Sequel (A Review of Long Live the Pumpkin Queen)

Long Live the Pumpkin Queen by Shea Ernshaw (Disney Press, 2022)

Nearly three decades after The Nightmare Before Christmas, there’s another nightmare brewing before Halloween.

Set shortly after the events of the beloved Tim Burton film, Shea Ernshaw’s YA fantasy novel begins with the wedding of Sally to Jack Skellington. While happy to be married to the bone man of her dreams, the newly crowned Pumpkin Queen frets over her new title and role. Riddled with self-doubt and feeling crushed by the press of expectations, she flees Halloween Town for a quiet walk through the Hinterlands. Beyond the grove of holiday trees, the hidden entrance to a forgotten realm is discovered, and when Sally accidentally leaves the door to this mysterious tree ajar, a worlds-spanning scourge is unleashed–a new Big Bad who makes Oogie Boogie seems cute and cuddly by comparison.

The novel offers readers the chance to revisit Burton’s colorful cast of monsters and to learn more about the dark holiday realm they inhabit: “In Halloween Town,” Sally notes, our graveyard rests on the outer border near the gate, where the howling voices of the dead can be heard echoing through the streets each night.” But it’s the excursion to the various other holiday towns that proves most remarkable here, as these fantasy worlds (Valentine’s Town, St. Patrick’s Town, etc.) are finely imagined and depicted via vivid detail.

Written in the first-person present tense, the narrative can feel a bit odd at first, but this stylistic choice creates a sense of dreamlike immersion that is appropriate to the plot. Ernshaw’s prose does shade toward the purple at times, and Sally’s repeated description of her emotions in terms of her ragdoll makeup (“My leaves stir wildly in my chest”; “dread slithers up and down my patchwork seams”) seems overdone. The metaphors get messy: after stating that her body is stuffed with “dried, shriveled leaves” and that she has “no bones to break,” Sally later refers to ” my linen bones” and an echo that “sends a spike of cold down to my tailbone.” But that’s my only real critique of this highly inventive and entertaining book.

Long Live the Pumpkin Queen is a fun fantasy novel that will delight Nightmare fans of all ages. I’m already dreaming of a potential screen adaptation by Disney–what better way to commemorate next year’s thirtieth anniversary of the original film’s release? Time to get started, Tim, on those stop-motion puppets…

 

Halloween Ubiquity

One of the many things I love about Halloween season is the wonderful abundance of holiday- and horror-related items online. Here are some (grave) sites that I’ve really dug so far this October:

 

Film School Rejects: This site’s “31 Days of Horror Lists” (e.g., “10 Best Horror Movies Set on Halloween Night”; “10 Deadliest Horror Movie Weapons”) are as inventive in topic as they are informative in content.

 

History.com: The dedicated Halloween page treats readers to a host of enlightening features, such as “How Trick-or-Treating Became a Halloween Tradition” and “Why Black Cats Are Associated With Halloween and Bad Luck.”

 

Halloween Daily News: The website’s name says it all. A worthy read the whole year round, but especially during October.

 

Cemetery Dance Online: The “Free Reads!” section of the publisher’s website has been running a cool interview feature called “How I Spend My Halloween.” So far this month, authors Cynthia Pelayo, Josh Malerman, V. Castro, Stephen Graham Jones, and Hailey Piper have revealed their holiday rituals.

 

Bloody Disgusting: This bountiful site always has terrific Halloween content, such as the editorials “10 of the Scariest Moments in Horror Movies Set Around Halloween” and “The 20 Best Scenes from the ‘Halloween’ Franchise.”

 

Book Riot: In this bibliophile paradise, readers can dive into such pieces as “20 Must-Read Halloween Nonfiction Books” and “Bookish Halloween Decorations for Your Fright and Reading Delight.”

 

CrimeReads: Recent pieces worth sampling are “The Very Human Horrors of Paul Tremblay,” “Discovering Charles Dickens’ ‘The Signalman,'” “Dracula vs. the FBI,” and “9 Works of Dark Humor Perfect for Halloween.”

 

Parade.com: Celebrants who veer toward the lighter side of the dark holiday will be happy to navigate over to the magazine’s “75 Funny Halloween Puns” and “75 Hilarious Halloween Riddles” webpages.

 

Wired: The posted video “13 Levels of Pumpkin Carving: Easy to Complex” might be the best tutorial ever on the topic.

 

Christine McConnell: On her YouTube channel, the goddess of macabre arts and crafts creates an amazing jack-o-lantern.

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 28th

[For the October 27th highlight, click here.]

 

October 28th

Various plot pieces fall into place on this night. With his recalculation of the pattern, Snuff at last identifies the site of the Halloween face-off: “It was here, Dog’s Nest, amid its broken circle of stone, where the final act would take place.” Bubo also conveniently summarizes what the Game is all about, articulating to Snuff the story “of how a number of the proper people are attracted to the proper place in the proper year on a night in the lonesome October when the moon shines full on Halloween and the way may be opened for the return of the Elder Gods to Earth, and of how some of these people would assist in the opening of the way for them while others would strive to keep the way closed.” For all the neatness of this chapter of Zelazny’s novel, its highlight arises from a reference to previous bit of professional messiness. After Jack comments that the other players will also divine the pattern’s central location within the next few days, Snuff replies, “…And the word will be passed. True. I can only recall one time when no one figured it properly.” It was a rare occasion a long time ago, Jack remarks, and Snuff provides further exposition: “Yes, and we all sat down to dinner together, made a joke of it, and went our ways.” Skilled, veteran players Snuff and Jack may be, but their Game record does contain one laughable tie.

 

Nights in the Ghostly October–A Review of Literally Dead: Tales of Halloween Hauntings

Literally Dead: Tales of Halloween Hauntings (Alienhead Press, 2022)

A theme anthology such as this one runs the risk of falling into the sentimental (beloved, departed relative returns from beyond the veil on Halloween) or the cliched (the holiday-observer who doesn’t realize his or her own ethereal state). Editor Gaby Triana’s selections tend to avoid such pitfalls, but the anthology is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of both form and content. The book features both fantastic cover art by Lynne Hanson (who recounts the image’s genesis in her introduction to Literally Dead) and wonderful end-of-text icons appropriate to each preceding story, but there are also some glaring errors (e.g. the anthology’s epigraph cites Stephen King’s Dance [sic] Macabre). Several of the stories fell flat for this reviewer from the start, while others engrossed me before proving disappointing with their endings or puzzling in their lack of recognizable connection to Halloween. Still, these tough-to-swallow stories only make the book’s real treats that much easier to relish. My pick for the six best pieces sampled:

“When They Fall” by Steve Rasnic Tem. A solitary man in a creepy hilltop manse is haunted (perhaps literally) by a tragic night of trick-or-treating in his family’s past. Quiet, shadowy horror in the grand tradition of Charles L. Grant.

“Ghosts of Candies Past” by Jeff Strand. Something is clearly amiss when the narrator’s children return home on Halloween with their trick-or-treat bags filled with discontinued confections in vintage wrappers. The uncanny soon gives way to the splattery, though, in this gloriously grotesque romp.

“The Ghost Lake Mermaid” by Alethea Kontis. Much like in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (which Kontis’s story resembles in its concerns with local lore and brutish bully figures), the aura here is more autumnal than Halloween-specific, but no matter. And if a mermaid at first seems an odd fantastical element to include in a ghost story, it certainly won’t by the end of this well-crafted account of a spirit-drenched lake.

“No One Sings in the City of the Dead” by Tim Waggoner. The most overtly horrific entry in the entire anthology (wait until you see what stuffs the Clown Lady’s treat bag!). A grieving widow resurrects her late husband with the help of a cemetery-dwelling “entity, who guards the gate between worlds, one who takes the form of a figure you find most frightening and who only appears on Halloween night” like some holiday-celebrating Pennywise.

“A Scavenger Hunt When the Veil is Thin” by Gwendolyn Kiste. Written in the second person, this list story guides the addressee through the titular Halloween ritual: the daring infiltration of the “decrepit abode” haunted by the ghost of its female owner (a nonconformist cast out and viciously persecuted by the townspeople). Transcending its ow horror scenario, Kiste’s narrative presents not just a frightful attempt to fulfill a prescribed task but also a feminist quest for liberation and self-direction.

“How to Unmake a Ghost” by Sara Tantlinger. Tantlinger’s story shares the same format as Kiste’s, yet is distinctive in its utter inventiveness. The text outlines the series of steps (carried out in a cemetery on Halloween night) required to overcome the parasitical side effects of having summoned the ghost of a loved one. A poignant tale of love and grief, of memory and the necessity of letting go–and a Stoker Award honoree in the making.

Literally Dead might not be a perfect anthology, but (thanks to these six standout tales alone) surely deserves a spot on the Halloween lover’s bookshelf.

 

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 24th

[For the October 23rd highlight, click here.]

 

October 24th

On this night in Zelazny’s novel, “all hell breaks loose.” During a bout of sublimely foul weather (“no normal storm but a manifestation of magical attack”), a long-foreshadowed event finally occurs: the various Things trapped at Jack and Snuff’s residence break free of their respective prisons. The closer and his familiar leap into action, and an epic battle ensues. Jack and Snuff succeed in slaying the would-be escapees, but at some cost, since the hoped-for advantage from keeping the Things in the first place has now been lost (“Under the proper constraints,” Snuff explains, “they had been intended as the bodyguard for our retreat, should one be necessary, following the events of the final night, after which they would have had their freedom in some isolated locale, obtaining the opportunity to add to the world’s folklore of a darker nature.”). The ensuing problem of what to do with the soon-to-be-rotting bodies of the monstrosities delivers the highlight of the night. As midnight chimes and enables Snuff to speak aloud, he proposes: “I say we take them over to Owen’s place and stuff them into some of his wicker baskets. Then we haul them up into the big oak tree, set fire to them, and run like hell.” This “great Halloween gag” (“even if it is a little early”) sets the stage for October’s final week, which promises to be filled with dark mischief.

 

The Terror from Beyond Springfield

This October, The Simpsons offers a double venture outside canon, with a pair of Halloween episodes. First up was last night ‘s terrific extended parody, “Treehouse of Horror Presents: Not It.”

Set in a Maine alternative to Springfield called Kingfield (“A Great Place to Bury Your Kids,” according to the town’s welcome sign), “Not It” has some fun and games with Stephen King’s epic horror novel It and the recent two-part film adaptation thereof. Various signature moments from the book and movies are Simpsons-ized: the iconic sewer-scene opening (toothy child-predator Krusto–a frightfully recast Krusty–takes young Barney Gumble’s sailboat and then the wind permanently out of the boy); the rock fight (in which “Super-Intense-Kid Chalmers” plays one of the bullies); the bathroom terrorizing (Loser Club member Marge has hers flooded by Krusto–not with blood, but seltzer). King fans will absolutely revel in these skewed, and often skewering, references.

Besides the gleeful grotesquerie (e.g. one of Krusto’s  victims has his intestines tied into balloon animals) expected of a “Treehouse” installment, the episode is stuffed with puns both verbal (grown-up Homer owns a tavern named “D’ohs”) and visual (the Maine town sports a “Lobster Lad” and the “Kingfield Chowder Plant”), with hilarious one-liners (“Bleach your mustache,” young Marge’s sister advises. “You look like El DeBarge.”) and witty self-satire (canonical Krusty’s career as a hack comedian is cleverly woven into the killer Krusto’s modus operandi). The extraterrestrial origin of King’s supermonster also facilitates a wonderful variation on the Kang and Kodos cameo that typically concludes a “Treehouse” episode.

Without a doubt, “Not It” is my favorite bit of viewing so far this Halloween season. The traditional “Treehouse of Horror” episode next Sunday is going to be hard pressed to surpass such horror-parodying excellence.

 

Horseman Courses

The recent passing of nonagenarian Angela Lansbury left me in a nostalgic mood, and sent me back to a childhood favorite–the hit mystery series Murder, She Wrote. And what better episode to start a re-watch with than the series’ most Halloween-centric installment: season 3’s “Night of the Headless Horseman.” As signaled by the title, the episode riffs on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” A love triangle is drawn at a Vermont private school, as the nerdy schoolteacher Dorian Beecher and the bullying riding instructor Nate Findley compete for the affections of Sarah Dupont, the headmaster’s daughter. Walking toward a covered bridge at night, Dorian is twice menaced by the eponymous goblin (whom Dorian believes to be Nate in disguise), once having a jack-o’-lantern hurled at him. On the morning after the second run-in, the body of the dispatched Nate is found (in surely the series’ most grisly turn) with his decapitated head missing from the crime scene. As always, Jessica Fletcher solves the murder and exonerates her friend Dorian in this witty, Irving-evoking episode.

While getting ready to write this post, I came across a strangely related item in my Facebook feed. It was an ad for the Headless Horseman Equestrian Event on October 30th in Montague, New Jersey. According to the Halloween attraction’s Eventbrite page, this is an “Interactive Archery/Swordplay and Horseback Riding Event,” in which participants (“Costumes Encouraged!”) can “Fight the Horseman!” Sounds like there won’t be any cravenly flights by Ichabod Crane-types in this neck of the woods…

 

Still a Smash After Six Decades

“It caught on in a flash,” the Boris-Karloff-channeling Bobby Pickett prophetically croons about the “Monster Mash,” which soon became a smash hit with more than just cemetery residents. Just six weeks after its chart debut, the novelty song topped the Billboard Hot 100 on October 20th, 1962–sixty years ago today.

Given the early success the song enjoyed and its subsequent entrenchment in pop culture, one might suspect that the “Monster Mash” originated as a bit of savvy calculation. But the sensation the song created appears to have been both unlikely and unanticipated. An aspiring actor who moonlighted as the frontman for the band The Cordials, Pickett launched into a Karloff impersonation while covering The Diamonds’ “Little Darlin'” during a concert. Positive audience response led Pickett (who, as a child in the late 1940s, nursed himself on the revivals of Dracula and Frankenstein that played on the screens of his father’s movie-theater chain) and fellow bandmember Lenny Capizzi to try and expand upon the Karloff-voice gimmick. The pair sat down and composed the song in less than an hour (which perhaps accounts for a nonsensical lyric like “tennis shoe, wah-ooh”); state-of-the-art-sounding effects were in fact homemade (water bubbled by straw=boiling cauldron; rusty nail pulled from board=creaking coffin lid). Pickett has admitted that he thought the song would only circulate amongst his friends–and it did almost land in the musical graveyard when the major record labels roundly rejected it. “Monster Mash” producer Gary Paxton (whose own offbeat hit, “Alley Oop,” helped inspire Pickett) had to have 1,000 copies of the record privately pressed, many of which he then hand-delivered to radio stations across California in the hopes of securing airplay.

So how did the “Monster Mash” overcome its less-than-auspicious origins, and why has it remained so popular for so long? Surely the answer isn’t as simple as a kitschy subject (a mad scientist sparks the newest dance hit) being serendipitously paired with a catchy tune? Besides riffing on the then-current dance craze the Mashed Potato, Pickett’s surf-rock-style song rides the wave of  mid-20th Century Monster Culture (a time when TV screenings of horror-hosted Universal monster movies, the assemblage of Aurora model kits, and fanatic collection of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine prevailed). In his study The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, scholar David J. Skal considers that Pickett’s fantasy number provided a comic outlet for contemporary, real-world anxieties: “Throughout the Cuban nuclear threat, America’s favorite pop song celebrated a mad scientist who presided over a dance of death.”  At the end of the day (and six decades), timing seems to be everything. The song’s late-October 1962 peak and autumnal resurrection every year since speaks to its consonance with the Halloween sensibility–the perennial holiday endeavor to make light of the macabre and make friends with monstrosity.

Over the years, Pickett attempted to build upon the wonder of his one hit, releasing related songs such as “Monster’s Holiday,”  “Monster Swim,” and “Monster Rap.” In 1995, he adapted his co-written 1967 stage musical I’m Sorry the Bridge is Out, You’ll Have to Stay the Night as the feature-length Monster Mash: The Movie (Rocky Horror-esque, albeit far less transgressive in its campiness). The hit song itself has been covered by a broad range of artists, from The Beach Boys to Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Misfits and Mannheim Steamroller, horror icon Vincent Price and (appropriately) Boris Karloff–even Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. But neither Pickett nor his various followers has ever matched the goofy glory of the original “Monster Mash.”

…But Not On a High Note

The horror.

In contrast to the general critical response, I was actually very high on Halloween Kills. I thought the decentering of Laurie Strode was a welcome reprieve, and found the focus on Haddonfield’s townspeople (who have been haunted by Michael Myers’s violence for four decades) extremely intriguing. So I was looking forward to the finale of David Gordon Green’s modern trilogy, Halloween Ends, yet also felt somewhat nervous that the film wouldn’t stick the proverbial landing. I had no idea, though, just what an unentertaining mess this new release (in theaters, and streaming on Peacock) would turn out to be.

Unfortunately, the opening credits sequence (jack-o’-lantern focused, in the grand Halloween tradition) is the highlight of the entire movie.

The screenwriters would have the audience believe that Michael (who barely appears in this film) has been hiding out in the sewers of Haddonfield like some wannabe Pennywise for the past four years. After WTF?, the viewer’s next question is why?, but there’s no explanation for Michael’s uncharacteristic behavior other than a need to drive the inane plot of Halloween Ends. Writers Paul Brad Logan, Chris Bernier, and Danny McBride deserve to have Silver Shamrock masks glued to their heads for coming up with the moronic idea of giving the Shape a young psychopathic protégé. All of this is as confusing as it is unconvincing. On the one hand, the film seems committed to demythologizing Michael, presenting him less as a supernatural boogeyman than a wheezing geezer ready for the slasher nursing home. But at the same time, Michael is granted the power of magically passing his evil onto another person, as if transmitting a virus to someone unwise enough to practice social distancing (and who will soon be converted from an anti-masker).

Meanwhile, Haddonfield has degenerated into geographical eyesore (it’s telling that one of the film’s central sets is the town dump) and moral cesspool. The townspeople prove so nasty, so repulsive, they make the typical cast of a Rob Zombie film seem as lovable as Minions. Even Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak, who has matured into a mesmerizing beauty) loses the heroine qualities she displayed in the prior two films, coming off as surly and abrasive here. Haddonfield and its inhabitants have grown so ugly, the viewer almost wishes that the town would get burned to the ground, as Allyson and her love interest/Shape-in-training, Corey, discuss. The result is a film in which it is hard to find a character to root for.

The obvious choice would be Jamie Lee Curtis’s perennial final girl, Laurie Strode. But she spends most of the movie either composing her memoir (which, judging from the bits we get to see her write, is destined to be filled with platitudes and vapid psychobabble) or engaging in a burgeoning (and completely uninteresting) romance with retired officer Frank Hawkins. Again, the film appears unsure in its characterizations, as Laurie vacillates between the happy grandmother who at last has put aside her traumatic past, and the psychological “freak show” that Haddonfield unkindly labels her.

Fans might be willing to forgive the film’s innumerable flaws if it delivered on the one thing that people really came to see: a final, climactic face-off between Laurie and Michael. Yet even this promised battle proves a bitter disappointment. There’s no strategy employed, no suspense–just a knock-down, drag-out brawl within the close confines of Laurie’s kitchen. Sadly, the scene has all the sheer brutality of a bout of domestic violence, and allows for negligible catharsis.

As I sat watching Halloween Ends (which, surprisingly, premiered a night early on Peacock), I felt like the victim of an elaborate Halloween prank: no, this monstrosity of a film wasn’t the real one, just a bit of hoaxing misdirection before the release of the actual finale. Epically unappealing, Halloween Ends does a gross disservice to any promise raised by the prior two films, and disgraces the nearly-half-century legacy of the entire Halloween franchise.

 

Inside Scoop

The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, forms one of the brightest shrines in our Macabre Republic. This seasonal event serves as a fiery beacon to Halloween lovers, guiding them into autumnal pilgrimage (which I feel blessed to have made on three different occasions over the years). Alas, I didn’t purchase tickets for a 2022 outing, but the next best thing to an actual visit is watching this short video, titled “Get the Inside Scoop on Blaze: Hudson Valley.” Teeming with images of the Blaze’s displays, the video also delves beneath the rind to show how this pumpkin wonderland is realized every fall by carving artists and creative designers.