Mob Scene: Dark Harvest

Many works of fiction have featured an Angry Mob scene, but arguably none have employed one to the same extent as Norman Partridge’s 2006 novel, Dark Harvest. The entire plot of the book concerns such eruption of chaotic, hyperviolent street justice. An anonymous Midwestern town acts out a black ritual every Halloween night: the teenage male population of this rural remote is charged with executing “a pumpkin-headed monster,” the October Boy, preventing the cornfield emigrant from reaching the old brick church in the town square by midnight. This ritualistic slaughter is carried out in the interest of continued community existence: the town secures “what it needs to get through another year of raising prize crops from the same old dirt, what it needs to turn those crops into cold hard cash–the whole deal delivered with a king-sized platter of blessings from above or below, depending on who the hell you listen to.”

Locked in their bedrooms unfed for the five days leading up to Halloween night, the teens are whipped into a feeding frenzy. When finally freed for the Run, they are armed to the teeth, wielding “baseball bats and pitchforks,” “butcher knives and two by fours studded with nails,” “bows and arrows and axe handles and scythes.” The teens thrum with dangerous energy, bashing porch-set jack-o’-lanterns as they roam the streets (warm up for the potential showdown with the October Boy). Armed guards posted outside the town’s market, diner, truck stop, and liquor store cannot always serve to curb the mob’s wild appetites–outbreak of deadly food-looting occurs. A gross violation of the rules, which decree that that the teens stay hungry until the dirty deed of leveling the walking scarecrow is done. Then the grim feast can begin (as demonstrated by a flashback to the prior year’s Run): “They came by the dozen, and they ripped the Boy apart and chowed down on those treats buried inside him.”

Partridge compares the imprisoned (pre-Run) teens to “bulls penned up in tight little chutes.” Hitting the streets at last on Halloween, they are described as “running in packs, like dogs turned loose for the hunt.” The figuration of the mob scene grows even more explicit: “Of course, the October Boy knows what stands between him and the church. Packs of teenagers roaming the street like armed villagers in some old Frankenstein movie.” But apropos of a novel in which crossing “the Line” (marking the town limits) is thematized and the distinction between categorical opposites is deliberately blurred (in “a town where winning is just another name for losing“), Dark Harvest does not stick strictly to the Universal blueprint. For all his repeated likening to Frankenstein’s monster, the October Boy is no dumb, lumbering brute. He exhibits admirable craftiness in outfoxing his antagonists, leaving his Halloween-candy viscera as trail bait, and sneaking into town behind the wheel of a hot rod stolen from one of the teens. Frankenstein’s monster famously gets torched inside the old windmill in the climax of the 1931 movie, but the October Boy uses fire to his own arsonist advantage: he sparks a series of blazes as strategic distractions that draw the teens away from the church (and which ultimately combine to engulf the town in a cataclysmic inferno). The “reaper that grows in the field, the merciless trick with a heart made of treats, the butchering nightmare with the hacksaw face,” the October Boy is the very embodiment of contradiction and terrible turnabout. By the sweet, vengeful end of the novel, he is the persecuted monster who beats (with a last-minute assist from protagonists Pete and Kelly, who have discovered the Run’s sinister twist) the angry mob at its own rampaging game.


Jack Splat (Review of Dark Harvest)

Long-delayed, director David Slade’s adaptation of Norman Partridge’s acclaimed novel Dark Harvest has finally been released. The film–which centers on a bloody crop-/community-prosperity ritual that a Midwestern, mid-20th Century town performs every Halloween night–has several admirable aspects. It boasts impressive cinematography: the view of the long, lone road leading from the remote hamlet and cutting through a cornfield gauntlet is nothing short of stunning. The film does a fine job of dramatizing what it’s like to grow up in such a strange hometown, and reaps added emotional impact by making Richie Shepard–younger brother of last year’s celebrated winner of the October 31st bogey-slaying “Run”–the protagonist (the source text focuses on a non-related character, Pete McCormick). Slade’s Dark Harvest also succeeds in planting the seeds of mystery and suspense, delaying the reveal of the town’s defining Big Secret until well into the film.

Unfortunately, though, the shortcomings overshadow the strengths here, and Dark Harvest ends up butchering Partridge’s novel. The film lacks charm; the teen characters are quite coarse in language and behavior, and the kills (not all of which are orchestrated by Sawtooth Jack, the cornfield-grown, pumpkinheaded monstrosity who comes stalking into town on Halloween night) prove exceedingly graphic. Despite its rural locale and year 1963 setting, the film fails to cloak its harsher, more modern sensibilities and feels like it is just wearing Americana drag. Partridge’s riff on Shirley-Jackson-style folk horror had a strong Twilight Zone vibe, whereas Slade’s film adopts the more dubious approach of a splattery pseudo-slasher.

With the October Boy/Sawtooth Jack, Partridge created a truly legendary horror character, a depiction that the film sadly does not capture. Yes, the cinematic Sawtooth’s flaming jack-o-lantern head is impressive, but his body grossly disappoints. Scoliotic and spindly-armed, the figure suggests an extraterrestrial more than an animate scarecrow. He has been stripped of language, emitting only an asthmatic wheeze as he staggers through the neighborhood savaging whoever crosses his path (the awful urgency of the Run–Sawtooth’s desperate quest to reach the town church by midnight–is completely lacking in the film). Worse, this Sawtooth Jack lacks the ingenuity that Partridge invests in the character, the demonstrated ability to outwit overzealous teen antagonists. Such distancing of Sawtooth as a mute, murderous Other renders the attempt to turn him into a sympathetic monster ultimately unconvincing.

No doubt, adapting the novel Dark Harvest was no easy task, and not just because of the special effects required to bring the fantastic Sawtooth to realistic life. Partridge’s richly poetic prose, with its lush similes and extended metaphors, does not translate readily to the screen, so a difference in aesthetic experience for the audience is perhaps inevitable. Still, Slade (working from Michael Gilio’s screenplay) could have adhered more closely to the book. Partridge’s novel is framed as a dramatic monologue, a form of address that naturally draws the reader in; the film might have made more strategic use of voiceover (which is limited to the opening moments), facilitating the delivery of the backstory of this Faustian town and its cabalistic Harvester’s Guild.

An instant classic of Halloween fiction, Partridge’s Dark Harvest is a novel to which fans happily return at October time (I myself have lost count of the number of times I’ve read it). Slade’s watchable but unmemorable film, adversely, is unlikely to enjoy such staying power; its Run promises to be more singular than annual for most viewers.


Harvest Time

The October Boy is getting his screen Run at long last.

The release of the film adaptation of Norman Partridge’s classic Halloween novel has been frustratingly delayed over the past few years, but the trailer for Dark Harvest finally has dropped and the on-demand premiere date of October 13th been announced.

And, boy, am I stoked. The trailer looks very promising; the book’s 1963 setting (in a Midwestern small town) has been retained, creating strong American Gothic vibes. Judging from the trailer (and the film’s R rating for “strong horror violence and gore”), no punches are going to be pulled during the October 31st mob scene that ritualistically determines the townspeople’s fate.

The success of the film, I believe, hinges in large part on how much of Partridge’s hardboiled, Monster-Culture-savvy prose style director David Slade (30 Days of Night) can capture onscreen. Most important of all, will be the special fx employed to animate the formidable scarecrow bogy, the October Boy (aka Sawtooth Jack). Done correctly, the result could be a creature that becomes as iconic as Pumpkinhead. Realized poorly, and the whole film could flounder. The trailer only offers vague glimpses of the figure, so hopefully something really amazing is being kept under wraps.

Keeping my fingers crossed that Dark Harvest proves the viewing event of the Halloween 2023 season…

Check out the official trailer below, and click on over to Halloween Daily News for an extended breakdown of it.

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#1

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1. “Spyder” (1994)

Hollywood history is given a fantastic rewrite in this Partridge vehicle featuring thinly-veiled versions of James Dean and Maila “Vampira” Nurmi (companions who were romantically linked in real life). A large part of the fun here involves catching the various allusions–and appreciating the deviations. The character of Layla (aka “Rigormortia”) isn’t just some cult figure vamping up a persona; she actually possesses occult powers (something the tabloid media irresponsibly accused Nurmi of following Dean’s tragic death). Layla’s black talents include turbo-charging the titular sports car by adding drops of her blood to its carburetor, and resurrecting a dead vintner for a ritual that turns a bottle of wine into a charmed potion. There’s also a memorably atmospheric set piece in which Layla manifests in the fog and hangs wraith-like outside the glass wall of a teetering, Hollywood hilltop home. Layla is a behind-the-scenes Tinseltown manipulator, and she works to give the narrator’s fledgling acting career a boost, but he soon grows leery of her influence. At the same time, he can’t help but lust after the “gorgeous corpsette,” and a complex power struggle unfolds between the two (building to a climax that offers a terrific twist on James Dean’s biography). “Spyder” is not only stocked with dark thrills, but also shines literarily (the narrator references Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon throughout, and waxes philosophical about desire and loss and “the power of legend”). With its unbelievably clever premise, and convincing mix of the mid-20th-Century Hollywood milieu and Monster Culture (alluringly packaged by TV’s first horror hostess), this horror-noir masterpiece lands the top spot on the October countdown of Norman Partridge’s Top 31 Works of Short Fiction.


Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#2

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2. “The Iron Dead” (2010)

Imagine if Dashiell Hammett wrote for Weird Tales rather than Black Mask, and you’ll have a good sense of the sensibility of this retro-pulp novella. In middle-of-nowhere Montana, a bootlegging run is interrupted by a “hell machine”–a vampiric cyborg hybrid of flesh and blood and metal and wire. This Satan-serving monstrosity seeks not just sustenance but also fresh recruits for its nightmare army: it builds new soldiers out of “scavenged engine parts and organs harvested from the bodies of murdered men and women.” With such a diabolical scheme unfolding, it’s fortunate that a wandering hero is drawn to the carnage; the drifter Chaney has a mechanical hand, a black satchel full of weapons, and a score to settle. The plot plays out like Night of the Iron Dead, as gangsters, lawmen, and Chaney hole up in a jailhouse under siege from the hell machine’s minions. Escaping, the unlikely band of confederates advance on the hell machine’s workshop of infernal creation (a cemetery-adjacent gas station/machine shop) during a driving rainstorm. A harrowing adventure narrative on overdrive, featuring an extensive cast of human heroes and villains and an assortment of exotic monsters that make Clive Barker’s Cenobites look like a bunch of Tinker Toys, “The Iron Dead” is surely cinematic in scope. No one does hard-boiled horror better than Partridge, and this knockout novella forms his premiere example of such genre mash-up.


Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#3

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3. “The Jack o’ Lantern: A Dark Harvest Tale” (2010)

This publication was a tremendous treat for Partridge fans, as the tale returned to the world of the author’s instant-classic Halloween novel Dark Harvest. The narrative, set a generation before the events of the novel, functions as a prequel, but the ever-inventive Partridge doesn’t just serve up a mere rehash. Yes, it’s a Halloween night, and another angry mob of teenage boys wielding pitchforks, ballbats, and machetes is attempting to halt the advance of the so-called “scarecrow monster,” the October Boy. But the jack o’ lantern of the title doesn’t refer to Ol’ Hacksaw Face’s grisly gourd, and there is violent mayhem afoot unrelated to the annual Run through the midwestern town. While the narrative here is self-contained, it also connects perfectly with Dark Harvest, forming the origin story for one of the novel’s main characters. “The Jack o’ Lantern,” with its shift to a prior year’s Halloween ritual, also demonstrates that there is room for further expansion of the Dark Harvest universe. Imagine a shared-world anthology (similar to what Lords of the Razor did for Joe R. Lansdale’s legendary character, the God of the Razor) featuring different Runs of the October Boy throughout the town’s shady history. Or better yet: how about a collaboration between Lansdale and Partridge in which the God of the Razor and Sawtooth Jack face off against one another? Now that would be one crackling yarn…


Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#4

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4. “The Big Man” (2000; expanded 2010)

Partridge’s fondness for Atomic Age genre films is writ large here, as bomb testing in the Southwestern desert produces an array of giant, radiated monsters: spiders, scorpions, bats, and one forty-foot-tall man. The giant of the title sports “teeth like polished marble tombstones” and drinks beer from kegs using “a car bumper for a can opener”; when injured, he leaves “huge red blood droplets that had dried like Navajo sand-paintings on the red earth.” This playing with scale, though, isn’t in the interest of echoing the fantastic satire of Swift or Rabelais, or even the suspenseful thrills of 50’s drive-in fare. The narrative, which reads like a dark, (Tim) Burtonesque fairy tale, is concerned most with its viewpoint character: a young boy physically and verbally abused by his foster father, Mr. Harstead (whose bar room the boy sweeps up, and sleeps on its pool table at night). When Harstead attempts to capitalize on his grenade attack (by tracking down the grievously wounded behemoth and procuring a skull trophy), the boy ardently hopes that the giant will triumph over the wicked pseudo-parent. But in this tale, wishes don’t come facilely true (at least not quite like imagined), and actions prove more powerful than words. “The Big Man” has an oversized heart, and its emotional story beats make this Partridge’s most moving work of short fiction.


Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#5

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5. “The Hollow Man” (1991)

This story’s antagonist (and narrator)–a carnivorous entity reminiscent of the Wendigo–constitutes one of Partridge’s most fiendish creations. Inside a cabin (whose interior decorator could have been Ed Gein) in the snowy hills, the creature not only feasts on the titular victim but also turns the poor guy into a macabre, half-dead meat puppet yanked around by “the metal rings pinned into its neck.” As if having talons jabbed into “blackened muscles” wasn’t bad enough, the hollow man also has his thoughts controlled by the invasive presence. The narrator’s devious manipulations are on full display when a quartet of hunters show up outside the door seeking refuge (thinking the cabin is solely human-occupied). After having the hollow man shoot his rifle at the arrivals, the creature slips up the chimney and wings slyly over to the hunters’ camp; then, after digging down to discover one sleeping man’s darkest nightmare, the narrator executes a divide-and-conquer tactic by orchestrating a scene of necrophilia. Partridge’s narrative probes the taboo, including the resort to cannibalism (the desperate measures stemming from wintertime starvation no doubt lie at the root of the Wendigo myth). A short but haunting tale that has kept its claws sunk into this reader for a long, long time, “The Hollow Man” is positively stuffed with body horror and supernatural dread.


Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#6

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6. “Vampire Lake” (2011)

Not your average Crew of Light: a stoic, gun-slinging “bounty killer” (“hunter” doesn’t do justice to this man’s relentlessness), a burly German blacksmith, a Mexican dynamite-man, a profane preacher, and the narrator–a scorched, disfigured wretch who managed to escape from a scene of nightmarish captivity. Their dark destination: the eponymous pool, located in a sepulchral underground cave, and the home of a vampire queen and other bloodsuckers cursed long ago during a search for Indian gold. Vampire Lake is one of the greatest settings Partridge has ever created, and the heroes’ journey down to it is marked by stunning descriptive passages (e.g. “The place was like a throat filled up with whispers, and they washed over the big stone gullet and hushed past us on their way to the narrow grave of a mouth above. Thanks to Indio’s dynamite, the iron gate that corralled the vampires’ corner of the world was now a twisted mess. That gate had once been a hell of a sight, scored with chains the blacksmith could never have cut, and spikes set with dead men’s skulls and tattered human hides that flapped like scarecrow warnings in the subterranean breeze.”). The narrative takes several intriguing turns: the bounty killer is haunted by his past slaughters in a most unusual (and visceral) manner, and the spectacular climactic battle with the vampire queen and her undead attendants (as albino alligators in the lake are stirred into a feeding frenzy by the carnage) presents a surprising, but extremely satisfying, twist. As the Top 31 Countdown has demonstrated time and again, Partridge has a special talent for penning unique vampire tales and weird westerns, and this deft combination of the two constitutes a double-barreled blaze of storytelling glory.


Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#7

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7. “’59 Frankenstein” (1996)

This vintage piece (first published in Partridge’s edited anthology It Came from the Drive-In) is a premiere example of the author’s love of 50’s-era drive-in movies and “the rockin’ rollin’ juvenile delinquent” horror of early Stephen King (e.g., Christine, “Sometimes They Come Back”). Riffing on the 1957 film I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, the story has an American-based Doctor Frankenstein create an amalgamated monster out of the body parts of high school football players who perished in a team bus accident. Things go south from the outset of the narrative: when the condescending doctor refuses to allow his monster to take a custom hot rod out for a spin, the teenage creation attacks him with a fireplace poker and tosses him down into the alligator pit below the basement laboratory. From here, the action cuts back and forth suspensefully between the doctor’s dire struggle and the creation’s encounters out on the town. While there is a definite grimness to the proceedings (no shortage of gator gore here), the story enchants with its sardonic wit and concludes with a perfectly ironic plot twist. A signature Partridge effort, whose subject matter and stylistic approach would identify its author even if there were no byline stitched below the title.