Dare Me Book Review Re-Post

In anticipation of the tv-series adaptation (which begins airing Sunday night on the USA network), here is a re-post of my review of Megan Abbott’s novel back on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2012.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott (Reagan Arthur Books)

Don’t be fooled by the cover image, or the fact that Abbott’s sixth novel is set in the world of high school cheerleading. Dare Me isn’t some saccharine teen romance but rather a dark and sophisticated roman noir. To start with, the cast of high school girls here engage in some decidedly adult behavior (Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol! seems to be their decadent mantra). As cheerleaders they are not vapid, bubble-blowing gym-bimbos; more like “gladiators” who train gruelingly and perform extraordinary physical feats. This is bloodsport, both in terms of the terrible injuries suffered (bones snap and tendons pop “like a New Year’s champagne cork”) and all the infighting/backbiting as the girls vie to be Top Girl on the squad and in the eyes of the coach they idolize.

The novel traces the tremendous, transformative effect new young coach Colette French has on her squad, and the trouble this brings to the long-standing friendship between sixteen-year-old narrator Addy Hanlon and alpha-female Beth Cassidy (a jealous Beth resents Addy’s closeness with the coach). Addy’s problems, though, are far from typical high-school fare. When a character is found dead under suspicious circumstances, Addy finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous web of secrets and deceptions–to the point where she doesn’t know whether she can trust either her old friend or her new mentor. With its dire plot complications, and its concerns with the limits/complexities of narrative viewpoint, Dare Me reads like a masterful mix of James M. Cain and Henry James.

Abbot’s prose has the precision and resonance of poetry (“Watching the swirl at your feet, the glitter spinning [down the shower drain]. Like a mermaid shedding her scales.”). The writing is highly sensuous, yet never descends into luridness, as seen, for instance, in the following description of a deep-tissue massage administered by Beth: “Her thumb slides up the diamond shaped middle of the calf, and notches there, working slowly, achingly, pressing down to the hardest place then sliding her thumb up, the two muscle heads forking. It’s like her thumb is a hot wand, that’s how I always used to think of it.”

Again, though, this is ultimately a dark and gritty story that Abbott’s narrator Addy is telling. There are strong overtones of American Gothic, with the novel’s central death taking place in a sparsely-occupied apartment complex called the The Towers (“it’s like a castle”). Drawn to the scene of possible crime (suicide or homicide? is the question at the heart of the mystery), Addy is forced to navigate the “gloomy dark” corridors, stepping along the way on the victim’s shotgun-scattered teeth.

Yet scariest of all in Dare Me is “witchy” and “vampiric” Beth, a pint-sized tyrant who seems to harbor more mean spirit than team spirit (“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls,” Addy warns us early on, anticipating the menace Beth will exude). She’s devious, manipulative, vindictive, but can hardly be reduced to a bitchy-it-girl stereotype. For all her brashness and razor wit, she is also a sad and wounded figure. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Beth stands as Abbott’s most memorable character creation to date.

Dare Me is an engrossing novel that will transport readers back to their own teenage years while simultaneously reminding them just how different the high school scene is for kids today, with all the fresh temptations and modern technologies at hand (the illicit sexual content of teens’ cell phones is integral to the novel’s plot). Abbott continues to break new ground, boldly setting her noir storylines in original milieus, and for those willing to dare the unfamiliar (rather than settle for the safely formulaic), an immensely rewarding reading experience awaits.

 

Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood (Macabre Republic Imports)

My previous post inspired me to import this 2012 book review from my old blog, Macabre Republic…

Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood by Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jim Pierson (Pomegranate Press, 2012)

Published in anticipation of this weekend’s release of the Tim-Burton-directed film, Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood is a glossy, oversized paperback collecting topical essays, anecdote-rich reminiscences by former cast members, a chronology of the 45-year history of the beloved Gothic romance, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the latest cinematic Shadows, and even a postscript poem by David Selby.

The book brims with insider information (which is to be expected, considering that Kathryn Leigh Scott played Maggie Evans/Josette DuPres on the series). Some of the intriguing insight offered: the genesis of the idea for Dark Shadows in series creator Dan Curtis’s mind; how those involved managed to shoot a feature film and a daily soap simultaneously; the reason Jonathan Frid refused to reprise his role as Barnabas Collins in the second film, Night of Dark Shadows; the impact of the Gulf War on the 90’s primetime version of the series; what it was like when Johnny Depp met Jonathan Frid on the Burton set.

The actors’ enduring love for Dark Shadows shines through the pages. Despite the grueling five-episodes-per-week production schedule, players such as Scott, Frid, and Lara Parker (Angelique) admittedly found it a joy to go to work each day. This remarkably positive attitude in turn makes Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood a pleasure to read.

Long-time fans will treasure the insider’s perspective here, while newcomers will appreciate the opportunity to learn all about Dark Shadows before seeing the film. Lovely as it is timely, the volume is lavishly illustrated with color and black-and-white photos. It makes for the perfect coffee table book for Gothic-aficionados throughout our Macabre Republic.

 

Book vs. Film: Eddie and the Cruisers

 

(It’s officially beach season, and the masses have begun the sun-and-fun-minded migration to the Jersey shore, so I thought it would be a good time to re-post this piece first published on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2011.)

 

Eddie and the Cruisers was the first movie I ever watched when my family purchased a VCR back in the mid-80’s. Today, I own the DVD, and have watched it countless times. For all my familiarity with the film, though, I was oblivious to its literary source. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally purchased and read the 1980 novel by P.F. Kluge that inspired the movie. So how do the two versions stack up against one another? Read on… (caution: plot spoilers).

The novel is narrated by Frank “Wordman” Ridgeway (Tom Berenger’s character in the film), so Eddie and the Cruisers is literally and figuratively his book. He forms the central character, even as he plays Nick Carraway to Eddie Wilson’s Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel is referenced several times throughout the book). The narrative thus proves much more personal/confessional than the film version. Frank’s voice–inflected with world-weary cynicism–also creates distinct echoes of hard-boiled detective novels (cf. the work Raymond Chandler).

Like the film, the book shifts back and forth in time, moving back through the decades to the Cruisers’ heyday, and contrasting that golden age with the tarnished nature of the band members’ modern lives. Kluge’s scenes, though, take time to unfold, whereas the film (thanks to jump-cutting) often offers smoother–and more poignant–transitions.

The cast of characters is more fully developed in the novel, which helps elevate them from background figures to major suspects in the mystery stemming from the popular resurgence of the Cruisers’ music. For instance, Wendell, who doesn’t deliver a single line of dialogue in the film (and is killed off midway through), is integral to the plot of the novel.

The book does a much better job of establishing Eddie’s dream, the musical goal he is trying to accomplish (something more complicated and significant than in the film version). On the other hand, director (and co-screenwriter) Martin Davidson more skillfully handles the subject of Eddie’s death: the question of whether the nascent rock star’s demise was an accident, a suicide (a consideration the book seems to shy away from), or possibly even a faked death.

While the film wonderfully captures the vibe of the Jersey shore scene of the mid-20th Century, Kluge’s novel extensively details the sights, sounds, and smells of the Garden State. Readers travel with the Cruisers from Newark to Camden, Asbury Park to Atlantic City. In effect, Kluge (a native of Berkeley Heights) has penned a Springsteenian ode to New Jersey.

The film’s major advantage, however, is its musical aspects. In the novel, Frank has to resort to quoted lyrics and his own paraphrasing narration (he acknowledges his struggles to depict the Cruisers’ performances: “How can I recapture that night? I can’t sing it, play it, or relive it. All I can do is recall bits and pieces.”).The film’s viewers, meanwhile, get to see the Cruisers in action, get to listen to the soundtrack (which I would rank as one of the top five in film history) furnished by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. Indeed, it’s doubtful that Eddie and the Cruisers would have struck such a chord with its audience if not for its interpolated songs–the enthusiastic anthem “Wild Summer Nights,” the haunting ballad “Tender Years,” and, of course, the bar-rocking classic “On the Dark Side.”

Perhaps what most distinguishes Kluge’s Eddie and the Cruisers is its dark, sinister tone (as it slips into the dark side of American Gothic). A derelict Quonset hut forms an eerie yet integral setting; the book climaxes with a series of bloody murders. The film opts for a milder air of spookiness, but its final scene raises goosebumps for a whole other reason. The music builds to a shattering crescendo, the documentary footage of the Cruisers fades to black, and suddenly the reflection of an older, bearded Eddie Wilson (he’s alive! he’s alive!) appears in the storefront window. A delightful twist ending, especially for anyone who happened to have read the novel (where Eddie’s fate is much different) first.

I absolutely loved Kluge’s novel, and have cruised through it twice since obtaining a copy. For all its strengths, though, the book is hard-pressed to match the film version for sheer, affective power. That’s why, using the 10-point divvy system, I ultimately give the edge to the 1983 cinematic incarnation:

Film: 6  ⇔  Book: 4

 

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.

 

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.