Lore Report: “Suffer the Children” (Episode 183)

Humans are very good at assigning value to things, the more rare, the higher the significance. But truly valuable things have one other quality in common: a dash of the unexpected. And when it comes to history, those are the stories that deserve to be told. Because they take us off the beaten path, put us off balance, and give us a fresh view of something we thought we understood. And in the process, they offer a perspective that’s more than a little disturbing.

The latest episode of the Lore podcast demonstrates that Sweden is the source of more than just Abba, meatballs, and a madcap Muppet chef. No, host Aaron Mahnke recurs to one of his favorite topics and traces the country’s staging of witch trials. Rather than rehearse a familiar narrative, though, Mahnke emphasizes the salient differences marking Sweden’s witch hunts. Children played an unusually prominent role, both in giving accusing testimony and suffering physical abuse (especially at the hands of one evil, torturing priest) and execution. “Suffer the Children” is stuffed with dark elements, folkloric and historic. The fabled island of Blakulla, reachable only by magical flight and purported to be the site of devil-attended witches’ sabbaths, is discussed. Mahnke also hearkens to the Great Noise, an ignominious peak of the witch panic (circa 1668-1676) that included “the largest execution on a single day for any recorded witch trial.” The October appropriate of this week’s episode is cemented when Mahnke invokes an Easter/Halloween holiday hybrid in which children dress up as witches and engage in trick-or-treat-style traipsing from door to door. Episode #183 makes for quite a bewitching listen, and is not to be missed this Halloween season.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#11

[for the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

11. “Carrion” (2006)

And speaking (in yesterday’s countdown post) of birds of ill omen…this retro-pulp masterpiece features a flock of unearthly buzzards with awful appetites (a story title like “Carrion” forebodes some grim pickings). But these grisly feeders don’t represent the extent of the horrors: there’s a strange, shuttered house looming incongruously alongside a lonesome highway in the Arizona desert. Its anthropomorphic façade is apropos, since the structure appears to be alive with evil: the thing is a “clapboard beast” from another, red-skied world. This hellish, buzzard-overrun house possesses its human visitors, stirring up–and feeding off of–black hatred and inner misery. In this consummately weird tale, some of Partridge’s most familiar story elements appear, from hardcase characters (such as a misnomer of a lawman with a sheriff’s badge pinned over his dark heart) to fantastic desert settings brimming with menace. The origins of the otherworldly house are never clarified here, but that only adds to the Bad Place’s macabre mystique. Additional construction is pending, as Partridge has voiced (in his afterword to the Lesser Demons collection) his intention to return to this unusual ruin in a future narrative.

 

Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow (Book Review)

Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow by Christina Henry (Berkeley, 2021)

This engrossing novel (Henry has a knack for crafting chapter endings that leave the reader helpless but to turn the page) returns to the enchanted region of Sleepy Hollow and presents the village and surrounding woods in all their rural, autumnal, and dark magical splendor. Set three decades after the events of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Horseman offers a convincing extrapolation of what life has been like for the Van Brunt family in the time since Brom and Katrina wed. It also fills in some of Irving’s longstanding blanks along the way, most notably in the case of what happened to Ichabod Crane the night he was pumpkin-thumped on that fateful ride home from the Van Tassel quilting frolic.

The book is narrated by fourteen-year-old Ben Van Brunt (whose grandparents are Brom and Katrina): a rambunctious adventurer in rebellion against the roles mapped out by family upbringing and village life. Such narrative perspective gives Horseman a certain young-adult feel, but make no mistake, this is an unflinching horror novel. Its plot feels like Irving’s “Legend” by way of Stephen King’s The Outsider: a fiendish creature is preying on young boys, savagely devouring their heads and hands (and leaving behind corpses that decompose in gruesomely advanced manner). With its scheming-warlock and evil-seducer character types, its woodland forays, and its thematic concern with haunting family legacy, the book also conveys a strong American Gothic atmosphere.

By the end of the first chapter, Henry reveals an interesting twist: Ben (short for Bente) is actually a female who isn’t just going through some tomboy phase; the character insistently identifies as male. At first, this might seem a jarring choice by the author, a retroactive importing of modern issues into the early-19th Century. But Ben’s desires prove easily understandable within the world of the novel, considering his idolizing of his grandfather Brom (who in turn treats Ben like the son he tragically lost). Ben’s liminal status is also integral to the plot: the character’s unusual appearance (dresses have been ditched for breeches) causes him to be deemed “unnatural” in the eyes of the provincial villagers, and he faces suspicion and persecution as the body count from the bizarre murders rises. Ben experiences moments of terrible peril and suffers some serious harm during the novel, but is also aided by a curious connection with the notorious Horseman of local lore.

A word of warning: this is not the ghostly, galloping Hessian created by Irving. The salient characteristic–headlessness–is even lacking here. Henry’s version of the Horseman (who remains in the background for much of the narrative) is more guardian spirit than harrying goblin. This could prove disappointing to readers expecting the majestic headhunter popularized by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Nevertheless, Henry deserves credit for her fresh take, her refusal to follow the same old chase-to-the-churchyard path. Casting its own captivating spell, Horseman is a welcome addition to the ever-growing body of literature that has developed from Irving’s classic story.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#12

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

12. “Blackbirds” (1998)

This story (inspired by an Alan M. Clark artwork) astounds with the sheer eeriness of its premise. A sinister man in black with a foul-feathered friend perched on his shoulder sneaks through neighborhood homes and seizes upon everyday items like a bath towel, measuring tape, and Slinky toy. But there’s more than mere kleptomania at hand, as seen when the figure begins manipulating these personal items. The man in black (who calls himself “an army”) is a people-reaper, and his skullduggery leads to nests of blackbird-laid eggs containing…well, I won’t spoil the shock here. Only a young boy named Billy is wise to the man’s attack on the town, and his defiance precipitates a climactic showdown at the mouth of a cave that connects to an extremely subterranean place. I’ve always been an avid fan of avian-based horror (a tradition tracing back to Poe’s vocal raven), and Partridge’s creepy tale definitely fits the bill.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#13

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

13. “Dead Man’s Hand” (1996)

As depicted by Partridge, the folkloric Negro gunfighter Stackalee cuts quite an imposing figure: dead-eyed and grizzled, decked out in an oxblood Stetson hat and a pair of magic boots “stitched from the hides of thirteen vampire bats.” At the start of this novella, though, Stackalee is in bad shape: he’s been lynched, a strip of flesh has been carved from his buttock, and his left hand has been chopped right off. The culprits: a nasty outlaw gang in league with a comely by formidable Arizona bruja named Estrellita (who plans to use Stackalee’s severed body part as a Hand of Glory). There’s macabre mayhem throughout, such as the scene when an insulted Estrellita curses the outlaws (one hapless desperado ends up with a bellyful of croaking frogs). And when the revived Stackalee catches up with his antagonists, his vengeance is grim and grand. “Dead Man’s Hand” is the last of a trio of Partridge pieces to feature the main character (after “Stackalee” and “The Bars on Satan’s Jailhouse”), and the third time is certainly the charm in this bewitching mix of the western and horror genres.

The Horseman Goes Hog Wild

As I discuss in my essay “Eerie Rider: The Headless Horseman’s Forays into Pop Culture” (included in my 2020 eBook The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition), “headless biker” has been a recurrent figure in post-Washington-Irving depictions of the Horseman. To my delight, this character update also appeared on last night’s episode of Outrageous Pumpkins. Carver extraordinaire Kristina Patenaude created this amazing display, of ol’ Headless on a Halloween Harley. I’ll admit I’m biased, but I thought this pumpkin sculpt rode roughshod over the competition!

For more on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: Ultimate Annotated Edition, check out the book’s dedicated page here on my website, and then head on over to Amazon to get your copy (I’ve expanded the Look Inside percentage, so browsers can now preview thirteen [and there are still over a hundred more to follow] of my detailed annotations of Irving’s classic story).

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#14

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

14. “Treats” (1990)

Here’s a piece that’s short and anything but sweet. It’s also another Partridge effort that builds suspense through narrative uncertainty (the reader can’t quite grasp the situation at first). At the start of the story, why is Maddie dreading her son Jimmy’s preparation for “Operation Trojan Horse”? Why does she scream a warning to children at a supermarket on Halloween, “Eat your candy! Eat it now! Don’t let them come after it!”? The subsequent explanations are surely unnerving; Jimmy is an Evil Little Kid to rival Anthony in “It’s a Good Life,” and his invasive army (which exerts control over its alleged General) forms the ultimate holiday nightmare. This fiendish twist on the candy-tampering motif makes Maddie’s skin crawl within the story, and mine follows suit every  time I treat myself to a read.

 

Dracula Extrapolated/Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#15

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

[And here’s a countdown post that doubles as the latest installment of the “Dracula Extrapolated” feature.]

 

15. “Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu” (1994)

What if Quincey Morris transported Lucy Westenra’s coffined corpse to West Texas?

That’s the premise of this piece first published in Poppy Z. Brite’s vampire erotica anthology Love in Vein. But the rough and tumble Texan isn’t simply mourning his lost love, nor is Quincey just looking to bury Lucy in American soil. His intentions gradually clarify as the narrative cuts back and forth between past events in Whitby, England, and Quincey’s present, unwelcomed return to his hometown. “Do Not Hasten” is conscious of Stoker’s Dracula and overtly dismisses the novel as a distortion of reality: “that tale of mannered woe and stiff-upper-lip bravado was as crazy as the lies Texans told about Crockett and his Alamo bunch.” Indeed, a great part of the story’s appeal derives from its variations on the characters (e.g. Dr. Seward and Arthur Holmwood prove to be villains here) and iconic scenes of Dracula. Stoker never seemed to know quite what to do with his cowboy hero (his working notes for the novel point toward an expanded role), but the same cannot be said for Partridge’s take on the darkly driven Texan.

 

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#16

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

16. “The Pack” (1995)

Here at the pivot point of the countdown (fifteen previous entries, fifteen more to follow) is a story whose interpretation can be taken in opposite directions. Is the prisoner (arrested for eating the banker’s wife’s pet chihuahua raw) at a small-town jail an actual werewolf like he claims, or is this leather-jacketed, pentagram-tattooed kid just some hoodlum who has seen too many movies? The prisoner warns the sheriff that if he’s not liberated before tomorrow night’s full moon, his motorcycle-gang cohorts (also alleged to be a pack of shapeshifters) will spread slaughter throughout this California equivalent of Mayberry. The gnawed bones dug up in the cemetery (and then arranged to form the message “LET HIM GO”) point to unnatural appetites, but the ambiguity concerning lycanthropy is never resolved. Either way, “the Pack” entertains with its 50’s setting and sensibility. While the climactic showdown between the local law and outlaw bikers never occurs, there’s a witty battle of the sexes running throughout, and the gun-toting women of “The Pack” prove to be a whole other bunch of wild ones.

 

Halloween Kills: Rapid Reactions

Just finished watching Halloween Kills on Peacock. Some immediate thoughts:

*I knew going in that the film would pick up right after the events of 2018’s Halloween. What I wasn’t expecting, and became fascinated by, was an early flashback to 1978 that picks up with the ending of the franchise originator. Events are considered from different angles, and holes in the storyline are filled in in quite interesting fashion.

*There are a lot of connections to Halloween history here, from the featuring of older versions of characters such as Tommy Doyle, Lindsey Wallace, and Leigh Brackett, to the importation of the iconic masks from Halloween III: Season of the WitchDr. Loomis also makes welcomed appearance here (woven so organically into the scene, you have no trouble believing that’s Donald Pleasance up there on the screen).

*Michael’s escape from the inferno that Laurie left him trapped in at the end of the previous film involves a bloody rampage through the first responders to the blaze. I-camera presentation of the slaughter through the viewpoint of a downed fireman’s face-shield creates a neat variation on the masked vantage point (young Michael’s murder of his sister Judith) in the first Halloween.

*Like its immediate predecessor, Halloween Kills offers some fine moments of comic relief, here in the form of a gay couple (the current occupants of the Myers house) who square off against a bratty pack of trick-or-treaters.

*Halloween Kills is a film very much about Haddonfield and Michael’s long-term effect on the community. That these people who have been victimized and terrorized by Michael’s evil assaults for so long would take to the streets seeking cathartic carnage just felt terrifically plausible. It also seemed a perfect reflection of the way Americans hasten to act these days. Of course, the vigilantes are overly rambunctious, and the situation soon goes sideways in spectacularly tragic fashion, but the emphasis here is on the psycho killer’s damaging legacy rather than on trumping up the grossly-outnumbered Michael by making the Haddonfield populace seem monstrous in their own right. All told, one of the best angry-mob scenes ever filmed for a horror flick.

*I’ll admit, I suffer from Jamie Lee fatigue, and wasn’t all that eager for another faceoff between her Laurie Strode character and Michael. But the film does a clever job of undercutting expectation and deemphasizing the connection between the two long-time nemeses. By decentering Laurie here, the film makes the scenes she does appear in that much more compelling.

*The commitment to telling a uniquely-angled story instead of rehashing a stale formula makes this one of the most satisfying entries in the entire Halloween series, and one of the smartest slasher films to be released in a long, long time. I wasn’t blown away by the 2018 movie, but Halloween Kills is aptly titled. When it comes to serving up entertaining horror fare, this film positively kills it.