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.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#8

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8. “Lesser Demons” (2010)

By his own afterword admission, Partridge doesn’t put much stock in H.P. Lovecraft’s stable of bloodless, swooning characters. No, Partridge subscribes to “the Macbeth school of horror. Which means I like heroes and villains who go down swinging no matter what a pack of witches, or the vagaries of fate, or the universe might have to say.” This utterly harrowing cosmic-horror story (which opens with a scene of laughing, grave-rifling children picking a corpse clean with their filed teeth) has the author’s approach/worldview stamped all over it. The narrator, Sheriff John Dalton, is a classic hardcase, and he has to be, considering all the awful, razor-jawed entities seeking to chomp into him (or even be born from his corpse). Dalton learns to navigate this haunted new world by confronting the hunters and “reading tales written in muscle and blood,” whereas his deputy sheriff, Roy Barnes, pursues answers to the macabre developments by sticking his nose in a grimoire (guess which methodology prevails). All told, this is the best account of the apocalyptic eruption of otherworldly monsters (e.g., “a hoofed minotaur with centipede dreadlocks”; “a giant worm with a dozen sucking maws”; “rat-faced spiders”) since The Mist enveloped Stephen King’s fictional town of Bridgton. With its hard-boiled fortification of Lovecraftian pulp elements, “Lesser Demons” constitutes one of Partridge’s greatest literary feats.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#9

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9. “Guignoir” (1991)

By Partridge’s own admission, this story (where dark crime shades off into horror, and the author’s love of monster culture is on full display) is the one where he really hit his creative stride. The narrator Frank and his twin brother Larry are roustabouts at their father’s traveling carnival, who also don the masks of Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man to work the Castle of Horrors attraction. But the ultimate draw of the carnival is the Death Car, formerly owned by Hank Caul, notorious author of a “stab ‘n’ skin murder spree” in Fiddler, California (the very town in which the opportunistic carnival has now pegged its tents). Caul and his legendary vehicle are involved a new round of bloodshed, as a slew of deadly betrayals between the carnies and the townsfolk transpire. “Guignoir” thematizes the telling of stories–fabrications designed to captivate an audience of “gawkers”–and this tale’s rapid-fire plot twists and scenes of utter viciousness (all related by an increasingly unreliable narrator) are guaranteed to leave the reader slack-jawed.

 

Countdown: The Top 31 Norman Partridge Works of Short Fiction–#10

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10. “The Mojave Two-Step” (1999)

Partridge has made a career out of mixing the genres of horror, dark fantasy, hard-boiled crime, and the western, but this entry stands out for its combination of crime noir with science fiction. The story is set “in the twilight days of global warming,” when cars are necessarily electric and “the licensing fees for luxuries which negatively impacted the sorry remains of the the ozone layer cost more than the cars.” A pair of armed criminals, Anshutes and Coker, are driving a hijacked ice cream truck (whose hot goods will be like frozen gold when sold on the black market) towards the air-conditioned oasis of Las Vegas. En route they run across, and nearly over, a robotic one-armed bandit. Even stranger than an “ambulatory slot machine” walking down a desert highway is the sight of the young woman lashed to its back (the titular punishment, handed down by gangster/casino-owner Johnny Ringo over Kim’s gambling debts). The omen-seeking Coker believes Kim on the “Cogwheel Kid” is Lady Luck personified, but their acquaintance is destined to be unfortunate. Double-crosses between the trio of Anshutes, Coker, and Kim mount up quickly, but for all the bloody mayhem this remains a fun read. Wonderfully offbeat, “The Mojave Two-Step” is on the mark when it comes to inventive and entertaining genre fiction.