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.

 

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.

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.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#17

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

17. “Dead Celebs” (1992)

A perfect example of Partridge’s ability to meld the genres of horror and dark crime. Ray Meleski and Cardell Word are a pair of movie-industry aspirants and memorabilia collectors/dealers who arrange for some illicit business with a whacked-out Hollywood producer of horror movies (destined to be played by Dennis Hopper if this story were ever filmed). The deal involves the delivery of a capital Bela Lugosi memento, but Ray (who also appears in the collection’s title story) gets his head all turned around when he shows up at the producer’s home and finds a bizarre costume party in progress. Every attendee is dressed as a dead celebrity (there’s Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, JFK, and John Dillinger, but the blue-skinned, seaweed-sashed, dead-crab-coiffed Natalie Wood surely takes first prize). Double-crosses, dire twists, and grisly discoveries abound, amazingly so for a story this short. The subject matter of “Dead Celebs” might not be the most tasteful, but this is one delectable piece of horror noir.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#18

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

18. “Coyotes” (1998)

Amigo, New Mexico, is decidedly unfriendly to outsiders, as evidenced by the opening scene of this story, in which a pair of lawless border patrolmen tie an illegal immigrant to their van’s bumper and drag him to his death. But this is more than a basic tale of racial violence (I don’t want to give too much away, but will mention that the story was first published in an anthology titled The Conspiracy Files). The narrator–animal control officer Roy–is not the most forthright guy, Amigo keeps some sinister secrets, and the titular coyotes signal more than wild-animal roadkill. Throughout his career, Partridge has demonstrated a knack for depicting desert places, but his sunbaked New Mexican setting here just might be his most chilling. “Coyotes” hits the mark for X-Files-type horror, and its conclusion also features a fine echo of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#19

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

19. “10/31: Bloody Mary” (2013)

Serendipity would have landed this post-apocalyptic holiday story as the 31st’s countdown post, but today also seems an apropos slotting of a piece first published in October ’13. Within the narrative, the date 10/31 has the same tragic associations as 9/11, but references a whole other order of terrorizing: one fateful Halloween, for no known reason, the monsters of lore overrun the earth. The macabre marauders include witches, werewolves, mummies, gargoyles, bat-riding goblins, and zombies, but the sentient, sirening jack-o’-lanterns might be the most seasonally sinister of all. There’s a certain Dark Tower aura here, with the title character (who has a complicated relationship with the teenage boy she mentors) forming a female version of Stephen King’s itinerant gunslinger Roland Deschain. By Partridge’s own admission (in the Author Spotlight interview appended to “10/31”), he was testing out the premise with this story, and it’s clear that he has plenty more territory to explore in this strange, Halloween-eclipsed world. A novel-length development has been in the making for over a decade now, and promises to be the ultimate dark treat when it finally drops into readers’ begging hands.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#20

[For the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

20. “The House Inside” (2003)

If the previous entry on the countdown was Partridge’s most lighthearted story, this apocalyptic piece qualifies as his bleakest. Think Toy Story by way of The Twilight Zone: a fundamental change in the sun kills off the human population, while turning plastic toys into real action figures. Assorted cowboys, Indians, and soldiers attempt to make their way from the yard to the shaded safety of the house, fighting rats and scorpions along the way, and finding a Mathesonian spider (gargantuan from the toys’ perspective) lurking inside a dollhouse in a child’s bedroom. Partridge plays masterfully with matters of scale, offering descriptions of “cat-hair tumbleweeds” and a dead boy sprawled in the yard “like a giant, pudgy mesa.” The situation also leads to some harrowing images of body horror: one hapless (and now faceless) cowboy has his “features melted slick as an eggshell,” while a sun-punished sergeant ends up glued in place from the waist down, “his bottom half smeared across the floor like the leavings of some goddamn gutter-slug.” As if the narrative weren’t dark enough already, it also presents a grim climactic twist reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead. Not a feel-good story for sure, but unquestionably a real good read.