“The Day After Halloween”

On the night before Halloween, here’s “The Day After Halloween”–a short story that was first published in the 2011 anthology Jack-o’-Spec: Tales of Halloween and Fantasy.

 

The Day After Halloween

By Joe Nazare

 

Night, like no other. October’s closing ceremony.

Drew McCormack stands gazing out from his front porch, joined only by the uncarved pumpkin propped on the gray wooden ledge. Curling his forearm to read his wristwatch, he sees that just two minutes have passed since last check. 9:48—which he once again translates to LATE.

“Dammit, Robbie,” he grumbles, but really he’s cursing himself. He should never have let the boy go out tonight.

Originally, he balked at the idea of Robbie heading out alone. It was too dangerous—too many up-to-no-gooders no doubt finding welcomed cover in nightfall. But Robbie was determined to hit up some houses. With oversized pillowcase already in hand, he implored his father to trust him. He was going to be fifteen years old, for crying out loud. “Besides,” Robbie clinched the deal, “you need to stay here in case anyone comes.”

Grudgingly, McCormack agreed. But he insisted Robbie stick to the immediate neighborhood. And that he get his butt back home as soon as he filled his makeshift goody-bag. “Be careful,” he called out as the boy hurried off.

That was nearly ninety minutes ago. Now, standing lookout on the porch, McCormack slowly exhales his unease. Rocking his body weight side to side, he vacillates between anxiety and anger. He squelches the urge to go searching for Robbie, realizing that he has no idea what route the boy chose, what house he could be at right now. And McCormack hates the thought of leaving his own home unattended, with so many beggars and mischief-makers surely afoot.

As if on cue, a figure swoops across the sidewalk in front of the house, momentarily framed by the break in the hedgerow. McCormack focuses first on the weapon in hand, a disconcertingly authentic-looking butcher knife. Next he registers the Halloween mask—literally, the wan, stoic visage of Michael Myers. This incarnation of the methodical slasher, though, has launched into an uncharacteristic sprint, a hastening that could signify either flight or pursuit. A frown elongates McCormack’s mouth as he listens to the Dopplering clomp of Michael-mask’s boots; he’s been reminded once more that on this particular night, anything goes.

And it seems like forever since Robbie went.

Meantime McCormack’s outstretched neck has started aching. Vertebrae crackle while he swivels, then tilts back, his head. As his chin thrusts forward, his view naturally lifts skyward. It’s a moonless night, casket-black, and against such a pitch backdrop he can just discern the cirrocumuli. McCormack pictures the inky gossamer strands as a tattered shroud, or a newborn’s caul.

“Anhhh.” He waves a hand in dismissal, wipes away such mental images. This unhallowed evening has given his thoughts a morbid cast. And it really was no time for fancy, not with more practical concerns pressing. The only shape he should be trying to make out is Robbie’s.

Leveling his sightline, McCormack refocuses on the street stretching past his home. Even when devoid of passersby, the scene hums with the anticipation of activity. Constantly, eruptions of disorder feel eyeblink-imminent.

Despite or precisely because of such charged atmosphere, the homes lining the roadway lie quiescent. Case in point: the Franks’ white colonial directly across the street. None of the strung holiday lights shine, the shades are drawn, and the front door looks nailed shut at this late hour. McCormack wonders if Robbie’s itinerary tonight has led him to a series of such sheltered residences. Wonders how much trouble he’s having trying to fill his pillowcase.

The house neighboring the Franks’ on the right, the Millers’, forms another unshining example of introversion. Swaddled in night and silence, it betrays signs of occupancy only via the faint blue flicker leaking through the slats in the shuttered windows of the upstairs bedroom. McCormack imagines the Millers huddled together there, and supposes he could be inside his own living room right now watching the TV as well. Rather than standing sentinel here on the porch and fraying his own nerves. But he had his fill earlier this afternoon. Honestly, he has little stomach for the limited fare dominating the airwaves. Endless repeats of the same horrorshows. Exploitative schlock, all of it.

A banshee shriek pierces the night, rending McCormack’s thoughts. He whips his head to the left, spots the black muscle car screaming up the block. The din of the car’s passengers, whose hellraising yelps mark them as teenagers, is matched only by the music blaring from the radio. The bass sounds as if it’s been raised full-tilt, and pounds steady as a war drum. McCormack fights back queasiness as the noise pulses through him, but still manages to identify what he’s hearing. It’s that “Number One With a Bullet” song that Robbie liked to play ad nauseam on his own stereo, though nowhere near as loud as this.

The only saving grace, McCormack figures, is that this carload of cacophony will soon zoom past earshot. But as if to spite that expectation, the car promptly squeals its brakes. McCormack’s own hands squeeze down in conjunction, into fists so tight that his knuckles feel like they might erupt from the skin. Fighting the tremble mounting in his right arm, he braces for confrontation.

The car veers from its path down the center of the roadway, effortlessly jumping the far curb. Mouth agape, McCormack watches the bat-wielding passenger riding shotgun stretch his torso out the open window. More thug than slugger, the teen executes a single, booming swing that obliterates the Franks’ curbside mailbox. Gathering speed even as it sacrifices traction, the car continues in a diagonal vector across the Franks’ and then the Millers’ property. A four-wheeled rape of nature, it mows down flowers and tramples Walt Miller’s perennially envied rosebushes. The driver spins the wheel, and the fishtailing vehicle trenches what look like brown quotation marks in the lawn. Engine growling, the car then accelerates back onto the blacktop and the whooping teens speed off in the same direction from which they came.  In all, the blitzkrieg has lasted less than fifteen seconds.

His jaw now clenched, McCormack snorts his fury over such wanton destruction. No-good punks, acting as if this day sanctioned mischief.

For years now late-October lawlessness has been a growing problem here in Sedonia, but tonight’s incidents are of a different order altogether. What McCormack just witnessed across the street makes tossed eggs and t.p.’d trees seem like the quaint rituals of a bygone era.  And he knows it’s not just the particularly brazen nature of the present desecration that bothers him; it’s his own inability to do anything about it. And even if he had the temerity to march into the sheriff’s office tomorrow to make a complaint, would anyone really care?

He supposes he should be grateful he hasn’t seen anything worse transpiring. Be thankful he resides in the rural Midwest, since he can only imagine how riotous things must be in the big cities nationwide. In his mind’s eye he envisions all the mummies and skeletons, all the grotesques and other assorted ghouls filling the city streets tonight. He recalls how for decades good citizens way up north in Detroit have battled annual arsonists given to lighting buildings rather than pumpkins. God knows what sort of bonfire must be blazing there this evening.

But all that urban madness lay many miles over in all directions—days away as the crow flies, as it were. His concern right now is much more localized.

He scans the now-lifeless street once more. A small, internal voice chides him to relax, things will work out fine. He tries his best to heed that voice. Maybe he has magnified the cause for concern here. Besides, hasn’t Halloween historically proven a day of needless worry? Parents, don’t let your trick-or-treaters accept apples—madmen are splicing razor blades into them. Don’t let the kids take candy from complete strangers—it could be laced with poison. Or, more recently, the epitome of post-9/11 paranoia: keep your loved ones out of shopping malls on Halloween—terrorists have planted explosives there.

Like some pathetic attempt to douse flagrant thoughts, a soft rain starts falling, trickling onto the porch roof overhead. The precipitation rustles the oaks in McCormack’s front yard, unmooring brittle leaves that fall in graceful kamikaze swirls.

Influenced by such scene, McCormack presumes that the low scratching sound he suddenly hears represents the scurry of wind-nudged leaves across pavement. But the noise continues to morph, until McCormack identifies it as the scuff of sneakers.

He spots them just as they turn up the walkway. Dark sneakers, two pair, sported by the two approaching figures. Both are clad in denim jackets and jeans, their only concession to costume the matching goblin masks covering their faces in pale green deformity. Their lanky frames suggest they are really too old to be trick-or-treating. Nonetheless, they’re the first to venture onto the property tonight, which has McCormack cursing his luck. He should’ve known he wouldn’t get through the evening without any visitors.

The masked duo exchanges whispers while stalking toward the house.  But then wide goblin eyes lift toward the porch, and the pair’s progress falters as they are no doubt surprised to find McCormack stationed outside his front door. He doesn’t even give them a chance to speak, just offers a solemn shake of his head. They are halted in their tracks now, and McCormack can almost intuit the flow of their thoughts—the debate whether or not to accept such dismissal. The standoff, though, lasts only as long as it takes the goblins to give him a good look up and down. Apparently deciding to try their luck elsewhere, the grotesque twins do an about-face and steal back off into the night.

McCormack’s scowl outlasts their departure. Their unrewarded visit is just another reminder of how ill-prepared he is for this day. But he thinks of the chaos that desperate, last-minute shoppers must be raining down upon the town’s lone supermarket tonight. No, he was right to stay clear of that zoo.

Again, the sound of shuffling feet, loud this time, with no pretense to stealth. So the goblins have changed their minds and decided upon mischief. McCormack swallows, readies himself for them.

But his stiffened body sags with relief when he sees who it is, finally: Robbie, with his brimming sack slung over his shoulder, like some Santa who has mixed up his holidays. The cheeks of his ghost-white face puff out air as he hurries the last steps for home.

McCormack inwardly revels at the sight of Robbie’s safe return. His son—it doesn’t seem right to deem him a boy any longer—really is his entire world since Keira’s passing two years ago. Still, he can’t keep the sharpness out of his voice as Robbie mounts the porch.

Dammit, Robbie.”

“I know…I know,” Robbie says between gasps. “It took a lot longer than I thought. I had to go past the neighborhood. Try houses of people we don’t know, houses that looked deserted.”

Chafing once more at his own enforced stasis, McCormack mutters, “Alright, let me see.”

Robbie unshoulders and holds open the stuffed pillowcase. McCormack peers inside, immediately spotting the full bag of Milky Ways lying on top. He glances up at his son, who offers a sheepish grin in return. In the past McCormack has hounded his chocoholic son about eating such junk; now, though, it just seems silly to worry about. These few sweets weren’t going to cause Robbie’s teeth to fall out.

So McCormack doesn’t say anything, merely paws aside the bag of candy bars to make sure the rest of the sack contains more appropriate fare. And sure enough, he finds bottles and bottles of Evian.  Cans of Chef Boyardee macaroni. Cans of soup. Even a tin of Spam. Strictly nonperishables—just as McCormack had instructed.

Robbie stares at his father, clearly hungering approval. “You did a good job,” McCormack tells him, smiling thinly. Meantime he’s happy to note the pink returning to Robbie’s cheeks. “Now hurry up inside. Take all this down to the cellar.”

As his son steps forward to oblige, McCormack realizes what Robbie isn’t toting. “Hey, where’s your—” he starts, then catches himself.  “Never mind.” Because he’s spotted it. The pistol—which forms a matching pair with the one still clutched in McCormack’s right hand—is tucked into the waistband of Robbie’s jeans, partially draped by his unbuttoned flannel shirt.

Before proceeding indoors, Robbie stops to nod at the house’s façade. “We gonna board up the windows tonight?”

McCormack stares at the house, pondering, then shakes his head. “Not tonight.” Worry has drained him; any extra fortifications will have to wait.

“Go on, I’m right behind you,” he tells Robbie. He stops, though, and doubles back to the front of the porch. Sweeps the pumpkin up into the crook of his arm. Waste not…

Before he can cross over to the doorway, he feels a subtle breeze wafting across the back of his neck. Despite the unseasonable balminess of this October-terminating night, he shivers.

Instinctively, he turns his head left, telescoping his gaze toward the far western horizon. It’s faint from this great distance: an orangey glow radiating up against the black vault of sky, like a sunset trying to reverse itself.

McCormack, who for seventeen years up until today has served as a social studies teacher, suddenly can’t help but to recall the Old World roots of Halloween. For the ancient Celts, the harvest festival “Samhain” marked the End of Summer, and was considered a time when the dead crowded the same plane as the living.

So maybe today’s a typical Halloween after all…

Chuckling hollowly, McCormack steps inside to join his son in setting their stores against the long, dread winter on its way.

Finally, the Finale

[No spoilers below]

It’s been quite a haul for The Walking Dead (eleven seasons, over twelve years). The series finale has seemed a long time coming, partly because of Season 11’s split into triple eight-episode segments spaced out over fifteen months, and partly because there was a two-week wait (for those who normally got to watch the episodes early on AMC+) after the penultimate installment. But on Sunday night the curtain dropped on the show at last, with episode #177, “Rest in Peace.”

The episode wraps up the central Commonwealth storyline–none to soon, in my opinion. The final season felt like it teetered on the precipice of the ridiculous with the focus on this nouveau bastion of civilization and its ice-cream-eating, zoo-animal-petting citizens. Episodes framed as noir mystery and courtroom drama suggested that the series, much like its eponymous rotters, had lingered on past its prime. Commonwealth governor Pamela Milton was the least of the Big Bads the show has featured (Alpha would have picked her teeth with this hypocritical politician), so her eventual comeuppance doesn’t make for very compelling viewing.

This climactic confrontation between Milton’s forces and the show’s protagonists takes place amidst a zombie invasion of the Commonwealth. Can’t forget about the walkers, right? This plot complication struck me as somewhat illogical (would a massive horde even exist at this stage of the post-apocalypse, and if so, wouldn’t the Commonwealth army have used its military might to decimate any threat that remotely threatened its borders?), facile in its attempt to raise stakes, and tiresome (because it feels like we’ve witnessed such scene several times before over the years). The finale also doesn’t do much with the plot point concerning the walkers’ weird evolutionary leap–their newfound ability to climb barriers and wield handheld tools.

What “Rest in Peace” does best is provide the show’s heroes one last chance to  demonstrate their noble qualities. Actor defections in recent seasons have elevated minor characters into roles arguably larger than they deserved, but these figures all reach a satisfying end to their character arcs. And the resolution (at least until the “Dead City” spinoff starts) of the Maggie-Negan conflict is handled particularly well, a worthy payoff to all the screen time invested in the storyline this season (in a scene that hearkens back to Negan’s notorious first appearance on the show).

Unsurprisingly, the show’s writers do not miss the opportunity to jerk some tears here. My biggest critique of end-stage TWD is that the show deviated from the formula that made it such a riveting watch, mitigating the emotional investment in characters placed in a constant state of peril (and who could perish at any point). It’s hard to fear a grim fate for characters (Daryl, Maggie, Negan) already slated to appear in spinoff series. And those cast members still eligible for elimination also appeared to have grown bite- and bulletproof during Season 11. Heading into the finale, I couldn’t recall the last time a significant character was killed off, but “Rest in Peace” does justify its title with a moving sendoff for one of its most beloved heroes. The episode also does a fine job just before closing of invoking the memory of all those protagonists who died during the show’s long run.

The Walking Dead perhaps staggered to the finish line in its final season, but created an overall body of work that was undeniably groundbreaking, and which will rise to the forefront of any future consideration of 21st Century television history.

 

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 29th

[For the October 28th highlight, click here.]

 

October 29th

“Checking out the aftermath of the fire” at the Good Doctor’s place, Snuff encounters Needle sleeping in the hayloft of the barn. The two are soon attacked by the crossbow-wielding Vicar Roberts, but are saved by the Great Detective in his Linda Enderby disguise. The Great Detective then conveys to Snuff everything he has deduced about the Game and its players. Snuff tries to play dumb, affecting all the mannerisms of a beast of “subhuman intelligence”: “idiot slobbering,” yawning, scratching his ear with his hind leg. The Great Detective (who also announces his intention to try to save Lynette from being sacrificed during the Halloween ceremony, since Larry is likely to be hampered by his own “moon madness” and the silver-bullet-loaded pistol of the vicar) isn’t fooled one bit by Snuff’s act. But the amusing contrast between the detective’s expression of Sherlockian brilliance and Snuff’s simultaneous “dumb dog” routine forms the highlight for October 29th.

 

Dark Carnival 75th Anniversary Retrospective: “The Lake”

[For the previous Dark Carnival post, click here.]

 

“The Lake” (1944)

The title conjures images of summertime amusement, but this is a story that determinedly defies expectations. Bradbury sets the piece in late September, when the lakeshore is depopulated and a sense of “the lonely autumn” has begun to take hold. Boarded-over hot-dog stands suggest “a series of coffins,” and the merry-go-round has been “hidden with canvas, all of the horses frozen in mid-air on their brass poles, showing teeth, galloping on. With only the wind for music, slipping through canvas.” Such ominous autumn atmosphere forecasts Something Wicked This Way Comes, indicating that the dark-carnival train was tracking through Bradbury’s imagination from an early age.

In “The Lake,” Bradbury plays with the conventions of the ghost story. His adolescent narrator mourns the loss of childhood friend/crush Tally, who used to build sandcastles with him but drowned in the lake the previous summer. A decade later, the narrator (now a married man) returns from California to visit the Illinois town where he was born, but as he walks the streets of Lake Bluff, he appears to have mortality on his mind (he’s “filled up inside with all those memories, like leaves stacked for autumn burning”). The hitherto-unrecovered corpse of Tally washes up, seemingly only after performing a ritual act: the narrator discovers a half-built sandcastle on the shore, as well as “small prints of feet coming in from the lake.” But the tonality of the narrative marks this as a more solemn than thrilling turn of events–hardly evidence of some dreadful revenant at large. Ultimately, “The Lake” is concerned less with Tally’s life after death than with the narrator’s death-in-life. He did not perish alongside Tally on that fateful day years earlier, but has drowned himself in nostalgia ever since. Viewing the girl’s strangely preserved corpse, the narrator thinks: “She is still small. She is still young. Death does not permit growth or change. She still has golden hair. She will be forever young and I will love her forever, oh God, I will love her forever.”

A poignant and haunting Weird Tale, “The Lake” (like the collection-opening “Homecoming”) furnishes early proof that Bradbury was much more than a pulp fiction writer. The author himself recognized it as his first great story; by striking upon the approach of mining childhood memories and then refining the ore by mixing elements of fantasy with autobiography, Bradbury mapped out his future as a wordsmith. As biographer Sam Weller notes, “the themes of the story would one day become classic Bradbury motifs–nostalgia, loneliness, lost love, and death.” Bradbury’s narrator might avow (as he turns away at tale’s end so as not to watch the waves take the sandcastle) that “all things crumble,” but this instant-classic of a literary construction has certainly stood the test of time.

 

Horror on the Horizon: 22 Anticipated Book Releases in 2022

2021 was an incredible year for horror fiction (one of the strongest in recent memory). The coming year looks very promising as well. Here is a quick list of 22 books whose release I eagerly await in 2022:

The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud

Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives by Adam Cesare

Devil House by John Darnielle

Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey

The Book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

The Dead Take the A Train by Richard Kadrey and Cassandra Khaw

Gwendy’s Final Task by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Reluctant Immortals by Gwendolyn Kiste

Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies by John Langan

Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi

Boys, Beasts & Men by Sam J. Miller

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Path of Thorns by A.G. Slatter

Dark Stars edited by John D. Taff

The Pallbearers’ Club by Paul Tremblay

We Will Rise by Tim Waggoner

Sundial by Catriona Ward

The Doloriad by Missouri Williams

 

Decays in Vegas

Zach Snyder’s Army of the Dead (currently playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix) presents itself as an intriguing genre hybrid. In this zombie/heist film (think Ocean’s Eleven meets Dawn of the Dead), a team of mercenaries assembles to infiltrate the burnt-out, undead-infested, walled-off city of Las Vegas and steal a sizable cash bundle from a casino vault. The problem, though, is that heist element of the story is sorely underdeveloped. No especial cleverness–mainly just militaristic might–is required to reach the casino. The penetration of the vault is basically accomplished by the team’s safecracking expert quietly listening to the door-lock’s internal mechanisms (the preceding uncovering of the booby traps leading up to the vault does make for a witty sequence, however).

No doubt, the undead end of the mashup gets greater play here, mostly to positive result. Represented as a primitive tribe rather than a stereotypical mindless horde, the zombies bring some fresh thrills to the table. But their battles with the mercenary team still manage to disappoint, as the zombies are either picked off with video-game ease by high caliber weaponry or inexplicably manage to avoid point-blank shooting with Matrixesque expertise. Repeated instances of the mercenaries choosing to shoot the barechested zombie king in his protective face plate struck me as mind-numbingly dumb.

Snyder’s film appears to revel in reference to other genre fare. Watching it, I detected visual echoes of, and plot parallels to, a host of predecessors (e.g., Aliens, Predator, Clash of the Titans, Escape from New York). But all this entertaining allusiveness only accentuates the fact that Army of the Dead never manages to find its own cinematic footing. The film’s story beats are all too familiar, offering viewers nothing unexpected. The few attempts at plot twist are clumsily handled (i.e. clearly forecasted).

If this film proves one thing, it’s that Dave Bautista is not yet worthy of leading-man status. His acting here is wooden (his Scott Ward is consistently out-emoted by the zombie king, a character with zero lines of dialogue).  Admittedly, the script does Bautista no favors, forcing him into a series of torturously corny conversations with his estranged daughter. Perhaps what is most surprising, though, is the lackluster nature of his action heroics. Prior to the conclusion (the inevitable showdown with the zombie king), the nominal leader of the mercenaries takes a decided backseat to the other killing-machines on his team.

There’s a lot I did enjoy about this film. The post-apocalyptic Las Vegas mise-en-scene (complete with a zombified, untamed Siegfried and Roy tiger on the prowl) is marvelous. Army of the Dead also makes inspired–and often quite amusing–use of its soundtrack (starting with Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds”). The inventive kills and glorious gore that fans have come to expect from zombie narratives are finely displayed. But even with a two-and-a-half hour runtime, the film seems to stuff in more story than it can adequately unpack and more characters than it can develop beyond clichés. Never living up to the promise of its zombie/heist premise, Army of the Dead forms an underwhelming campaign.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#1

[The previous posts for this countdown: 30, 29, 28; 27, 26, 25; 24, 23, 22; 21, 20, 19; 18, 17, 16; 15,14,13; 12, 11, 10; 9, 8, 7; 6, 5 4; 3; 2]

 

At long last, the countdown concludes! I’ve really enjoyed this chance to delve back into Clive Barker’s brilliant multi-volume collection (which, nearly four decades later, remains the most audacious debut in the history of the horror genre). The Books of Blood are filled with wonderfully unnerving narratives, but here’s my choice for the most horrifying one of all:

 

1. “Rawhead Rex” (from Vol. 3)

King Kong meets British folk horror in this tale of a pre-Christian-era monster on the rampage in a modern-day village during Harvest Festival time. The titular nemesis terrifies from the moment he is accidentally liberated from his ancient grave (in which he has been buried alive since the 1500’s): “His head was breaking the surface now, his black hair wreathed with worms, his scalp seething with tiny red spiders.” Nine feet tall, brazenly naked, with a “lewd, revolting face”  and double rows of needle teeth “like claws unsheathed from a cat’s paw,” Rawhead Rex is a creature of “gargantuan” appetite and “crude territorial instinct.” He is a “childdevourer,” a gelder of men, a rapist of women (who die giving birth to horrid-jawed hybrids), and a golden-showering defiler of priests (Rawhead anticipates Pinhead as a hellish figure of sacrilege). The scene in which he murders protagonist Ron Milton’s young son is one of astonishing atrocity, horrifying for both the helplessly-witnessing father and the ravaged son who vomits down Rawhead’s tunneling gullet as the monster abruptly bites off the top of his head (later, Rawhead gourmandizes on the stolen corpse in more leisurely fashion: “Occasionally the beast would lean up on one elbow and paddle its fingers in the cooling soup of the boy child’s body, fishing for a delicacy.”). But for all his brute violence, Rawhead is “no mere beast”; he is capable of cunning as well as carnage. Some of the most satisfying sections of the narrative are those presented from Rawhead’s perspective, revealing his bloody desires and fears (like all classic monsters, Rawhead has a specific vulnerability). Unlike Frankenstein’s Monster, he has no aversion to fire. “Fire was a tool: he’d used it many times, to burn out enemies, to cremate them in their beds.” “Demented with death” and eager to raze the village of Zeal, he attacks the “wheeled boxes” he finds “lined up on the pavement like bullocks to be slaughtered” and ignites their “blood” (burning himself blind in the process of such raging). Although ultimately vanquished, Rawhead Rex reigns supreme as Barker’s most formidable monster in the collection, and the savage swath he cuts through the former “Wild Woods” constitutes the most horrific endeavor in the Books of Blood.

 

Some More Gore D’oeuvres

In honor of tomorrow night’s return of The Walking Dead on AMC, here are five new pieces of zombie haiku that I have added to my previous “Small Bites” post in the Publications/Free Reads section.

 

Unfit Bit

Never enough steps.
Tracked down by a cadaver.
Measureless progress.

 

Shakespearean Tragedy

Merchants of menace.
All-too-pursuant Shylocks
Exact pounds of flesh.

 

Morning Death

Gross halitosis,
Like something died in his mouth.
His pecked bedmate does.

 

Unhealthy Skepticism

News reports dismissed:
Nothing but a can of bull.
Now: a cannibal.

 

Nights of the Walking Dead

Carnage as homage.
Romero-ghoul Easter eggs,
Nicotero-dyed.

 

A Rebuttal to Lovecraft Haters

H.P. Lovecraft was a racist, simple and plain.

H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of the horror genre.

Both of these statements can coexist. To be disgusted by the fact of the former does not necessitate a disavowal of the latter.

This notion does not seem to have been given much consideration these days, in the midst of a rampant “cancel” culture with its rush to politicize/ostracize/erase. Case in point: the recent stoking of the flames of controversy by those who were offended by the awarding of a Retro Hugo (a retroactive honoring, in this instance, of fiction from 1944, a chosen year predating the existence of the Hugo Awards) to Lovecraft. I was alerted to this ostensible issue by a recent essay (more like an op-ed piece) posted by Meghan Ball on the Tor Nightfire website, entitled “Stop Giving Awards to Dead Racists: On Lovecraft and the Retro Hugos.” I have no intention of defending Lovecraft–whose indisputable racism is indefensible–here, but I do feel that there are problematic aspects of Ball’s rhetoric that need to be addressed.

Ball takes unabashed umbrage at Lovecraft’s posthumous win:

Literally the most racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist jerk in the entire history of horror as a genre got an award. Even more galling, somehow, is that apparently he won for “Best Series” which is a thing he never even really wrote. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Haven’t we suffered enough?

First, it needs to be clarified that this Retro Hugo was awarded to “The Cthulhu Mythos, by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and others.” The distinction was not given to Lovecraft alone, yet Ball is quick to cast Derleth and others aside here. Such singling out of Lovecraft (who, as the original creator of what has come to be called the Cthulhu Mythos, no doubt deserves prime recognition) suggests someone eager to take shots at the genre’s easiest target.

The grouse that Lovecraft never wrote a series is mere semantics. What I find more relevant is the competition that the Cthulhu Mythos was grouped against for the Retro Hugo. Looking at the other nominees in the “Best Series” category, I don’t think this qualifies as an upset win. Nor do I think the award is the result of any sort of reactionary conspiracy by the voters.

Ball’s lament about suffering is a bit much, smacking of the hyperbolic and melodramatic. And before anyone accuses me of writing from a position of privilege, let me just say that as an Italian-American, I would have been tossed by Lovecraft into the same cauldron of nauseating vitriol. Personally, though, I don’t feel particularly damaged by the choosing of Lovecraft (and others) for the Retro Hugo, or deem it some torturous development for writers in the horror genre.

In the subsequent paragraph of her piece, Ball’s struggle to come to terms with the acknowledgement of Lovecraft continues:

This literally did not have to happen. The point of these awards is to highlight achievements in the genre that never got awarded. I imagine there was a group of very well-meaning people who thought maybe they could uncover lost gems or highlight authors who never really got their due in their lifetime.  Instead, they appear to be a way to give the same few names more accolades, and seem rather alarmingly unconnected with what is going on right now in the genre. The phrase “read the room” comes to mind.

The operative phrase here is “I imagine”: Ball speculates on the intended spirit of the Retro Hugo awards. Her view skews toward the honoring not merely of the overlooked, but to the under-represented. Her comments speak to a seeming resentment of Lovecraft’s enduring popularity (honestly, would anyone be so outraged over him had he faded into obscurity along with his pulp brethren?), and implicitly interrogate anyone who dares to contribute further to it in any way. Even more bothersome is Ball’s complaint that giving such award to Lovecraft represents a dangerous disconnect with current goings-on in the genre. Does the citing of work circa the mid-1940s have anything to do with what is transpiring in 2020? Is it the obligation of the Retro Hugo Awards to “read the room”? I am reminded of the politicizing of the Oscars in recent years, where the recognition of intrinsic artistic merit has been eclipsed by the desire for gestures toward social justice.

Next, Ball professes:

I love Cthulhu as much as anyone else. That’s why I am here to say: enough is enough with Lovecraft. He has become the racist albatross around the neck of cosmic horror, and I am so sick and tired of it. It’s not “Lovecraftian horror,” it’s “cosmic horror,” because one man does not have a copyright on wondering what horrors lurk beyond the stars.

After having herself just focused exclusively on Lovecraft as the awardee (ignoring the other contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos), Ball proceeds to call for a broadening beyond him. More off-putting is Ball’s arrogating to herself the responsibility for being the conscience of, and mouthpiece for, the genre.

Indeed, time and again, Ball enacts a disconcerting slippage between “I” and “we”:

As a community, we have outgrown Lovecraft. We’ve moved beyond him. While his influence will always be there, cosmic horror is undergoing a diverse and powerful transformation into something way beyond what ol’ Howard ever envisioned. […] Cosmic horror is being turned into something wonderful and new in the hands of talented women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ authors. It would have made Lovecraft hide under his bed, quaking in his boots, and I love that. That is what should be celebrated now, yet we keep picking at Lovecraft like someone picking at a scab, never letting it heal.

There is some vagueness here as to what Ball wants to celebrate: the emergence of new voices in cosmic horror fiction, or the imagined (in vindictive mindset) causing of distress to Lovecraft? That scab analogy is also interesting, considering that it’s the denigrators of Lovecraft who appear the most compelled to pick away and keep the putative wound fresh.

And allow me to digress slightly here to address what I believe to be a disturbing trend in the genre: the systematic discrimination against writers of perceived advantaged background. I am talking about the calls for submissions to anthologies and magazines that strictly limit the demographic; straight white males need not apply. This exclusionary measure offends on several levels, not the least of which is the suggestion that such writers are incapable of creating characters of different ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation than their own (these same writers doubtless would be excoriated for a lack of diversity in their cast if they failed to offer such representations in their work). These days, the author’s identity seems to supersede the fictional product itself. But as another genre giant once asserted, “It’s the tale, not he who tells it” (although, I am sure that today Stephen King would be loudly rebuked for employing such a masculinist pronoun).

Returning to Ball’s bouncing of Lovecraft:

I think everyone who considers himself a fan of horror or science fiction or fantasy is just tired. I know I am. […] We’ve also been going through so many terrible things the past few years, with revelations within the genre space of sexual harassment, racism, ableism, and homophobia. It has been a very long few years. That’s why the act of giving H.P. Lovecraft an award feels even worse: it’s just another step backwards. I’m not saying that you can never read a Cthulhu story again, you just shouldn’t be giving an award to the person everyone uses as the ultimate example of racism in the genre at a time when we are still very much dealing with racism in the genre.

Again, Ball problematically assumes that she can speak on behalf of “everyone.” Making Lovecraft the figurehead for everything that is wrong with the modern genre doesn’t seem very fair, either. The man has been rotting in his grave for nearly a century now; he shouldn’t be implicated in acts of sexual harassment, ableism, homophobia or even racism currently being committed by other genre figures. And how gracious of Ball to grant that we can still read Cthulhu stories (one suspects, though, that she does so grudgingly).

The disgruntled Bell, meanwhile, wonders whether the Retro Hugos shouldn’t just be dismantled as an awards program. She points out that “these awards seem to be doing further harm to a genre already reeling, and we do not need to keep flagellating ourselves like this. We don’t need to keep contorting ourselves and bleeding out on the altar of ‘proper canon’ created by dead white guys to show fealty to our chosen genre.” Earlier, Ball championed the positive developments in the genre; here she posits a “reeling” genre in serious crisis. The tendency appears to be to tout empowerment or alternately play a victim (admittedly, I find that elaborate masochism conceit a bit of a head-scratcher) whenever it best suits the narrative. Ball’s scornful dismissal of “dead white guys,” reducing genre history to a convenient, pejorative catch phrase, speaks volumes about her antagonistic perspective.

Ball concludes with the denouncing pronouncement that the “Retro Hugos, as well as the 2020 Hugo Awards themselves, were a massive step backwards, awash in the glorification of a past that was primarily white and male, dismissive of anything new, and borderline hostile to changes made for the better. How many people saw Lovecraft’s win and decided this wasn’t the genre for them?”

My immediate response to Ball’s overreaction is, how many people saw Lovecraft’s win (at a conference set in New Zealand, no less), period. How many genre fans really care about this year’s Hugo winners, let alone a retroactive award for the year 1944? I would venture that more–by which I mean a select cadre of–writers (determined to build their own platform by climbing up on a soapbox) than readers were chagrined by Lovecraft’s win.

In any event, the keyword here is “decided.” It links back to Ball’s opening paragraph, where the author declares it an “abomination” that “a group of people decided to give H.P. Lovecraft an award.” Ball clearly cannot accept that this award was the product of a popular vote–that others might actually hold a viewpoint different from her own.

I’ll say it again: Lovecraft was a flat-out racist. I regret his bigoted ignorance, and pity him for whatever biological/environmental forces warped his outlook so terribly. But I am quite capable of deciding for myself, without the influence of self-appointed genre spokespeople, whether or not Lovecraft’s benighted perspective taints my enjoyment of his fiction, or stymies my willingness to engage with his weird tales altogether.

Ultimately, Ball’s essay–emblematic of the Lovecraft bashing that has grown so fashionable, and so tiresome in its rehearsal of the same racism argument–ends up promoting the very intolerance of others that it bemoans. Perhaps the author should be more careful going forward about throwing Lovecraft statuettes from her own glass house.

 

Lore Report: “Reflections” (Episode 142)

https://allthatsinteresting.com/jim-twins

Folklore wasn’t always an invention of the mind, just some clever story invented and then passed along. Sometimes it was more tangible, more physical, and more real. Because in a world of the unusual and unexpected, nothing was more powerful than the birth of twins.

Today’s episode of the Lore podcast considers the wonders and mysteries of identical twins. As always, host Aaron Mahnke is careful to establish historical context: besides recurring to Greek and Roman mythology, he also notes how twins were feared and revered by ancient cultures worldwide. The episode really hits its stride when Mahnke relates stories of twin connections (e.g. a pair of brothers separately adopted as infants who grew up to have wives/children/dogs with the same name, who entered into the same career field, and who even chose the same exact vacation spot) that seem to move beyond sheer coincidence and into the realm of the mystical. The scientifically inexplicable shades even further toward the eerily supernatural when Mahnke focuses on a pair of twins with an uncanny link to their siblings who died in a car crash before the younger set was even born.

In the closing segment, the topic shifts from identical to conjoined twins, and unfortunately, the discussion here feels like a bit of a stretch (and an attempt to expand the episode towards the podcast’s typical run time). That Eng died just a few hours after his brother Chang can be interpreted as a mere biological byproduct. The perishing of these famous Siamese twins on the same day doesn’t seem all that incredible, and thus Episode 142 ends with a narrative whimper.

“Reflections” pales in comparison to Lore‘s best offerings, but devoted listeners will still want to check this one out.