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.

 

Hardly Garden Variety

 

Why is it that the secrets we don’t like to talk about during our lives are the same secrets we don’t want to take to the grave with us?

The day before dying on a hospital bed after a long battle with cancer, my mother told me a story that happened the year after I went off to college. The story was as strange as the time she chose to tell it.

How’s that for an opening hook? These lines from Mariano Alonso’s short story “Nemesia’s Garden” (published in Cemetery Dance #76) drew me in quicker than the snap of a Venus flytrap.

The story is set primarily in the Dakota Building in Manhattan (filmed as “The Bramford” by Roman Polanski in Rosemary’s Baby; coincidentally, CD#76 also features an essay by Peter Straub marking the 50th anniversary of Ira Levin’s landmark horror novel). Thankfully, though, Alonso doesn’t recur to the device of devilish impregnation. Matters here (involving the botanical extravaganza of a room occupied by the aged, wheelchair-bound eponymous character) are much more exotic and eccentric than suggested by the story’s quaint title.

Alonso’s plot proceeds with subtlety and misdirection, building skillfully to a twisty revelation in the closing paragraphs. Dealing in sibling rivalry, surreptitious poisons, and wild transmogrifications, “Nemesia’s Garden” exudes a modern fairy tale air. But its fantastic elements are well grounded in the everyday, and rooted in the historical (as the story hearkens back to post-Nazi-invasion Poland). Alonso has crafted a tale that is at once beautifully descriptive and hauntingly outre. This latest edition of Cemetery Dance presents several strong stories, but “Nemesia’s Garden” without doubt forms the dark highlight of the issue.

 

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Postscript: if you are interested in learning more about the haunted history of the Dakota Building, check out this short essay by Orrin Grey.

 

Canine Surprise: Stephen King’s “Laurie”

Stephen King’s latest short story (posted–without previous notice–as a free download at the author’s website) opens with the gifting of the eponymous mutt to a grieving, elderly widower by his sister. Mid-scene, Beth mentions to her brother Lloyd that “dogs die in cars. Especially little ones.” That is exactly the fate of the Jack Russell terrier Biznezz in another canine-centered King story, the Carveresque “Premium Harmony,” which leads one to wonder if “Laurie” will unfold in a similarly minimalist and irony-rich vein. On the other hand, since this is Stephen King we are talking about, there’s also the possibility that the gruesome chaos of Cujo could erupt. No small part of the fun of reading “Laurie” is the uncertainty of just where the tale is heading. King ultimately delivers a wicked curve, resulting in a suspenseful–and somewhat bloody–climax. The narrative works as both a chilling bit of realistic horror (to which the Florida setting is essential) and a heartwarming account of the developing bond between owner and pet. Hardly a shaggy dog story, “Laurie” rewards Constant Readers with a fine, unexpected treat.