Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Jack-o'-Lantern Abecedarium: Halloween Gourds a la Gorey

It's been fifty years since twenty-six children perished at the hand of a single man.  The sinisterly surnamed Edward Gorey, though, wasn't a notorious mass murderer but rather an esteemed writer/ illustrator whose 1963 masterwork The Gashlycrumb Tinies takes the subject of juvenile demise from A to Z.  Gorey's depictions of death encompass the accidental (a tumble down a staircase) and the deliberate (strangulation by thug), the mundane (choking on a peach), and the bizarre (being devoured by mice).  Some of the drawings show the youngsters facing imminent mishap, while others pose victims in postmortem ignominy. The common denominator is dark humor: Gorey's titular Tinies jointly evoke the Victorian (in both name and dress), yet any notion of the prim and proper is ironically undercut within the context of a grim primer.

The Jack-O'-Lantern Abecedarium commemorates the golden anniversary of The Gashlycrumb Tinies in orange and black fashion, turning to popular late-October ritual.  Pumpkin carving--Halloween's quintessential act of creative destruction--offers terrific opportunity for both self-expression and (if one's not careful) self-infliction.  The following "alphabet book" might not be as rife with fatality as its precursor, but it does strive for the same macabre and mischievous sensibility.  My goal has been to honor the spirit of the holiday season while paying homage to the ultimately inimitable Mr. Gorey.

A is for Andrew,
Who wound up carving his hand, too.
B is for Beverly,
Who decorated oh so cleverly.
C is for Carson,
Who was obsessed with arson.
D is for Dylan,
Who tried to grow penicillin.
E is for Elyse,
Who carved the Mark of the Beast.
F is for Frances,
Who took one too many chances.
G is for Godric,
Who ate candy 'til he got sick.
H is for Herbert,
Who was a bit of a pervert.
I is for Ivor,
Who created an eyesore.
J is for Jordyn,
Who should've brought her gourd in.
K is for Kevin,
Who loved the movie Seven.
L is for Leif,
Who was the neighborhood thief.
M is for Maisie,
Who was just plain lazy.
N is for Nell,
Who never learned how to spell.
O is for Onyx,
Who depicted pumpkin colonics.
P is for Pryce,
Who was committed to vise.
Q is for Quinn,
Who caused a cave-in.
R is for Riley,
Who refused to make hers smiley.
S is for Siri,
Who venerated the eerie.
T is for Tate,
Who had a distinguishing trait.
U is for Ulysses,
Who considered his younger brothers sissies.
V is for Victoria,
Who favored phantasmagoria.
W is for Wilfred,
Who sympathized with the ill-fed.
X is for Xavier,
Who formed a model of misbehavior.
Y is for Yul,
Who was the kind to be cruel.
Z is for Zach,
Who gave his a practice whack.
Now you know your A, B, C's...
Go carve out some more like these.
Special thanks to Lisa S. for providing the illustrations.

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#1

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#1. "By Bizarre Hands"

A Southern Gothic shocker set on Halloween, "By Bizarre Hands" (1988; collected in High Cotton) is my easy choice for the top Joe R. Lansdale work of short fiction.

The story's viewpoint character is a spurious evangelist in the mold of Davis Grubb's Harry Powell (Night of the Hunter) and Flannery O'Connor's Manly Pointer ("Good Country People").  Preacher Judd travels to the home of the Widow Case when he learns that the woman has a mentally-challenged daughter.  Judd has "a thing for retarded girls, due to the fact that his sister had been simple-headed, and his mama always said it was a shame she was probably going to burn in hell like a pan of biscuits forgot in the oven, just on account of not having a full set of brains."  He also has "this thing for Halloween, because that was the night the Lord took his sister to hell, and he might have taken her to glory had she had any bible-learning or God sense."  Regretting his sister's perdition, the now-adult Judd has devoted himself to "baptizing and giving some God-training to female retards" (but not "boys or men or women who were half-wits").

This preacher's mission is hardly a glorious one, apropos of a story that foregrounds grotesquerie.  Judd's father ran off with a "beaver-toothed wash woman"; his Granny was killed and eaten by the family's hogs.  Facially, Widow Case resembles a "shaved weasel," but the hair on her ankles is "thick and black enough to be mistaken for thin socks at a distance."  The widow's drooling, ant-eating, knuckle-dragging daughter, meanwhile, has been incongruously christened Cinderella.  Unabashed in its political incorrectness, Lansdale's narrative finds much of its comedy in Cinderella's imbecility.  Not realizing the TV has been turned off, the girl watches "the dark screen like the White Rabbit considering a plunge down the rabbit hole."  When Judd promptly baptizes her with drops of iced tea on head, "Cinderella held out her hand as if checking for rain."  It's hard not to laugh at such lines, and even more difficult not to feel guilty for doing so.

The truest grotesque here, though, is Preacher Judd himself.  Turns out, he was the one who raped and murdered his own sister on Halloween night all those years ago, leaving her lying with "her brains smashed out and her trick or treat bag turned inside out" (after discovering the body, naked beneath a white-sheet ghost costume, the local sheriff asserts that the girl was killed "by bizarre hands").  Judd's intentions for Cinderella are no less illicit, and his offer to take her trick-or-treating is a predator's lure.  Beware of strangers without any candy.

When Widow Case finally catches wise to the situation, the fight that ensues between her and Preacher Judd takes black humor to an almost slapstick level (e.g. Judd distracts the widow by holding up his left hand and wiggling "two fingers like mule ears," then floors her with a right cross).  But just as Judd's true colors come to light, so does the story's darker impulses.  "By Bizarre Hands" exacts a tonal shift similar to the one in "Night They Missed the Horror Show": Lansdale hooks readers with humor then gut-punches them with grim horror.  There's zero mirth to be found in the scene where Judd catches up with Cinderella (who ran off while he was fighting with her mother) and repeatedly brains her with a frying pan, the sound of the fatal bludgeoning like "hitting a thick, rubber bag full of mud."  In "Night They Missed," the author ultimately offers a critical commentary on ignorant racism; here in "Hands," he tackles the human evil that parades around in holy clothing.

Preacher Judd possesses all the deluded self-righteousness of the putatively religious.  As he drives away from the scene of his latest crimes at tale's end, he glances at the moon overhead and notes its resemblance to "a happy jack-o-lantern," which the Halloween lover takes as "a sign that he had done well."  Every last paragraph in this wickedly entertaining and disturbing narrative is an indication of how well Lansdale himself has done.  A signature piece, "By Bizarre Hands" is the work of an utterly masterful short story writer.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Trick or Treat!

Hand over some candy while you still can.  This gourd is ready to start carving if you don't satisfy its craving.

I decided to do an etching this year, partly because I just didn't have the heart to gut this picturesque pumpkin.  That stem, by the way, is real (the vine arms were made by Ray Villafane); I love its witch's-hat shape, which gives a hint of mischievousness.

If you're a fan of jack-o-lanterns, be sure to check out the special post I have planned for tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#2

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#2. "Master of Misery"

We've seen already on this Countdown that Joe R. Lansdale has a knack for channeling literary greats (without necessarily resorting to pastiche).  In 1995's "Master of Misery" (collected in Bumper Crop), the author invokes a true heavyweight of American fiction, Ernest Hemingway.  His hard-boiled tale of fishing, fighting, and other acts of machismo would certainly make Papa proud.

On a charter fishing boat in the Caribbean, protagonist Richard Young encounters a wedded couple who prove that love and marriage don't necessarily go hand in hand.  The wealthy husband, Hugo Peak (the pinnacle of prick-dom) is cocky, obnoxious, and misogynistic, his trophy wife Margo beautiful yet abused.  A long opening scene establishes the pair of characters fully, as Peak harangues and humiliates Margo after she unintentionally insults his male ego by landing a bigger fish than he did.  Peak's behavior is blatantly repulsive, but by scene's end the reader learns there is more going on here than meets the eye.  Richard has been lured onto the charter boat with the Peaks, and boorish Hugo has been trying to antagonize the man into fighting him.  That's because Richard is a former world-champion kickboxer who retired from competition after killing his opponent with an illegal blow, and Peak (a trained Thai fighter) "was the kind of man who would want to know a man who had killed someone.  He would want to know someone like that to test himself against him.  He would see killing a man in the ring as positive, a major macho achievement."

When the initial baiting attempt on the fishing boat fails, Peak next sends a battered Margo to Richard's apartment with an ominous message: Peak will continue to beat her mercilessly if Richard does not agree to come to his private island for a square off.  "He told me to tell you that he can be a master of misery," Margo relays.  "If not to you, than to me."  Richard scoffs at first at the whole sordid scenario ("the goddamn son of a bitch must think he's a James Bond villain"), but when he finally does accept the invite to fight Peak, it's not for the $10,000 prize or the promise of Margo as a bonus ("I got to be happy somewhere else besides below the belt," Richard sardonically informs the temptress when she assures him she knows how to make a man happy).  No, the real enticement for Richard is the chance to commit unbridled violence once again. In an introspective moment, Richard acknowledges his primitive urges: "It was a scary thing inside of him; inside of humankind, mankind especially, this thing about killing.  This need.  This desire. Maybe, he got home, he'd go deer hunting this year.  He hadn't been in over ten years, but he might go now.  He might ought to go."

Richard's showdown with Peak is a pugilistic-rules-be-damned fight to the finish.  The story waxes philosophical over such bloodsport, with Peak professing to his foe: "Death, it's nothing.  You know what Hemingway said about death, don't you?  He called it a gift."  Literary allusion soon gives way to physical brutality, though, as Lansdale's expertly choreographed battle between the two male warriors features a slew of graphic detail.  We get to feel the bones of the human skull cracking beneath a vicious heel kick, to hear an ear rip off the side of a head "like rotten canvas."  And while the hurricane that breaks in on the climactic bout does smack of deus ex machina, it is also fitting, underscoring the notion of human wreckage.  Indeed, Lansdale doesn't waste any blows in this story, with each sentence perfectly crafted to create narrative power.  The end result--a tale defined by rich characterization, overtly dramatic
incident, vivid settings and strong themes.  "Master of Misery" causes anything but unpleasantness for the captivated reader, furnishing a stunning reminder of why its author is the undisputed Champion Mojo storyteller.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Dead Lines

Strong dialogue in last week's episode ("Infected") was rarer than a zombie cure, but Sunday night's "Isolation" more than made up for that lack:

Hershel: We just went through something terrible.  Everything we've been working so hard to keep out, it found it's way in.
Rick: No.  It's always there.

Michonne: I'm in.
Hershel: You haven't been exposed.  Daryl has.  You get in a car with him--
Michonne: He's already given me fleas.

Rick: Whoever it was that did this, they're not going anywhere.  We'll find them.
Tyreese: Today?  Right now?  Because I'm not feeling the urgency.  All I see you doing is pumping water.  In fact, what I'm picking up is, murder is OK in this place now.
Rick: No, it is not.  But we have to save lives first.  We have to keep this place going.
Tyreese: You worry about that.  I'll worry about what's right.

Bob: You really want me coming along?
Daryl: [holds up a sheet of paper]  What's that word?
Bob: Zanamivir.
Daryl: Yeah, we need you.

Hershel [to Rick and Maggie]: Listen, damn it.  You step outside, you risk your life.  You take a drink of water, you risk your life.  And nowadays, you breathe, you risk your life.  Every moment now you don't have a choice.  The only thing you can choose is what you're risking it for.  Now, I can make these people feel better and hang on a little bit longer.  I can save lives.  That's reason enough to risk mine.

Rick: [admonishing] We decided to do that tomorrow.
Carol: We don't know if we get a tomorrow.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#3

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#3. "The Shadows Kith and Kin"

This 2007 title story is a bit of a departure for Joe R. Lansdale, both tonally and stylistically.  But the end result is the same: one incredible read.

Relentlessly bleak, and choppily narrated (often stringing single, short-sentence paragraphs), "The Shadows Kith and Kin" drops us inside the mind of a Charles Whitman-type sniper.  The narrator--unemployed, living with his in-laws, married to a woman threatening to divorce him--is plagued by existential angst and feelings of emasculation.  One restless night, while sitting out on the front porch, he is approached by a faceless, "tar-covered human shape" that intones "You are almost one of us" before returning to the crowded shadows.  The narrator is visited (or so he believes) nightly thereafter by the strange shades: "More than one now.  And they flutter tight around me and I can smell them, and it is a smell like nothing I have smelled before.  It is dark and empty and mildewed and old and dead and dry."  These occult entities, defined by "an absence of being" more than an "absence of light," form "the empty congregation," a legion of failures with whom the narrator immediately senses kinship:
The sad empty folk who wander through life and walk beside you and never get so much as a glance; nerds like me who live inside their heads and imagine winning the lottery and scoring the girls and walking tall.  But instead, we stand short and bald and angry, our hands in our pockets, holding not money, but our limp balls.
Not long after encountering the shadows, the narrator (who counts shooting a gun as one of his few talents) is moved to murder his whole family.  But even as he resides in his isolated home with their moldering bodies, waiting out a freak ice storm, he knows a more spectacular act of violence is required of him before he can truly join his shadow friends.  In the story's climax, the narrator ascends the phallic clock tower on the campus of the college he dropped out of (and where he then worked as a janitor before being fired).  A
"future-stealing machine," the gunman proceeds to deliver a series of "hot lead announcements" to the unsuspecting students below:
"Telegram.  You're dead."  All the while, the narrator is cool, displaying an unnerving lack of affect.  He casually describes the assassination of an attractive coed ("The young woman falls amidst a burst of what looks like plum jelly") and compares his various victims to the minnows he once stomped to death as a child (after the bait failed to catch him any fish).

The story hints at biological (faulty brain wiring) and environ-mental (an abusive and gun-loving father) explanations for the narrator's aberrant behavior, yet maintains a strategic ambiguity as to whether a deranged psyche or an actual supernatural influence spurs the narrator's shooting spree.  Either way, the conclusion is absolutely chilling.  "The Shadows, Kith and Kin" evinces the banality of evil, as an envious and discontented loser wreaks bloody havoc on anyone unlucky enough to fall within his sights.  Lansdale, who himself attended the Austin campus of the University of Texas, hearkens back to Charles Whitman's infamous crime, yet pens a tale that (perhaps most frightening of all) is perennially timely.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Short Story Spotlight: "We, the Fortunate Bereaved"

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 scare-crow'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 "subter-fuge" that attends the Halloween event.  Some Dunhavenites pull out all the stops--to ensure their loved one will vivify the scare-crow, 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.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Kingly Trivia

In keeping with this week's theme, a quartet of scarecrow-related questions:

1.The original hardcover edition of Nightmares & Dreamscapes features a scarecrow on its front cover.  What is written across the front of the scarecrow's shirt?

2.In the Dark Tower series, what is the name used to describe the scarecrow-esque effigies ritualistically burned on Reap bonfires?

3.In Under the Dome, which murder victim does Big Jim hide by disguising the person as a scarecrow decoration on his front lawn?

4."Mr. SWAC" is a scarecrow that ends up bisected on Dome Day in Under the Dome.  What does the acronym "SWAC" stand for?

Correct answers appear in the Comments section of this post.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dark Passages: "The Companion"

Like many other terrific Joe R. Lansdale works, "The Companion" (1995; collected in Bumper Crop) did not make the Top 20 Countdown, but the story is worth citing for its featuring of a wicked scarecrow as the antagonist.  As can be seen from the passage below, Lansdale (who authored the piece with his children, Keith and Kasey) gives some unique touches to the familiar figure, creating a special sense of menace and mystery:
As Harold approached the scarecrow, he was even more taken with its unusual appearance.  It was dressed in a stovepipe hat that was crunched and moth-eaten and leaned to one side.  The body was constructed of hay, sticks, and vines, and the face was made of some sort of cloth, perhaps an old towsack.  It was dressed in a once expensive evening jacket and pants.  Its arms were outstretched on a pole, and poking out of its sleeves were fingers made of sticks.
From a distance, the eyes looked like empty sockets in a skull.  When Harold stood close to the scarecrow, he was even more surprised to discover it had teeth.  They were animal teeth, still in the jawbone, and someone had fitted them into the cloth face, giving the scarecrow a wolflike countenance.  Dark feathers had somehow gotten caught between the teeth.
But the most peculiar thing of all was found at the center of the scarecrow.  Its black jacket hung open, its chest was torn apart, and Harold could see inside.  He was startled to discover that there was a rib cage, and fastened to it by a cord was a large faded valentine heart.  A long, thick stick was rammed directly through that heart. (127) 
When Harold removes the pinioning stick, the soulless straw man comes to life and pursues the boy with deadly intent.  With "The Companion," Lansdale proves that R.L. Stine isn't the only writer who knows how to give goosebumps to young-adult readers.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"The Werecrow" (poem)

[Artwork by Andrew Dobell]

"The Werecrow"
By Joe Nazare
An October harvest moon, the first in four years,
Pumpkin-round, its shadowy craters like Halloween carvings,
Glowing ochre in its overlook of the remote cornfield.
Amidst the withered stalks: a long wooden stake with clavicular crossbeam,
Looking like a solemn crucifix, some emblem of Elias Dunham's devotion.
The old-timer had a reputation for worshipfulness, but not piety,
Was alleged to possess beliefs that lay as far outside
Christian tenet as his property did from the town proper.
Hearsay of the unspeakable led Dunham's farm hands to wash theirs of him;
They quit their positions en masse, and migrated back home to their kin.
The sudden defection occurred at the height of the reaping season,
Leaving a desperate Dunham with no choice but to toil solo.
So he was not soon found when cardiac arrest felled him in this very field.
That was long ago, though, the land neither tended nor tenanted since.
The late Dunham's acres now form an early autumn ruin, muted and static.
But just shy of dawn a writhing darkness invades the scene from above,
Like a tempest-spurred cumulonimbus making an impromptu nose dive.
Steadily the nebulous shape resolves into a murder of crows,
Each with a wormy something pinched between its beak.
Silent but for the flap of their wings, a beaten-rug thump,
The black travelers flock toward the rotten wooden T.
Converging, pecking, contributing the particular scrap transported,
The crows weave a gross anatomy from foot to head, torso to fingertip,
All the while stuffing themselves within the effigy.
The resulting figure stretched on the cross in almost blasphemous pose
Appears as much mummy as frightful straw-man.
Finishing touches are given an instant before the moonlight dies,
As the last of the carrion crafters sew clothes around the corpus,
Zipper an anguished rictus across the face.
And back in town on this morn, an unsettling mystery:
Another overnight vanishing, the first in four years.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Scarecrow Week II

It's a straw-men encore!  All week long, I'll be publishing scarecrow-related posts (for last October's offerings, click on "Scarecrow Week" in the right sidebar).

Here are some macabre simulacra to kick off the week:

And check out the creepy scarecrows in this book trailer:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre (Book Review)

Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre.  Edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2013).

Guran's previous high-holiday effort, 2011's Halloween, was an indisputable October treasury; perhaps its only drawback was that it consisted strictly of reprints, meaning that ardent fans of Halloween fiction were likely to have encountered many of the selections before.  But Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre poses no such problem, presenting readers with eighteen (highly) original stories.  Some of the standouts:

*"Thirteen" by Stephen Graham Jones.  A tale (the best of its kind since Joe Hill's "Twentieth Century Ghost") that takes the haunted theater motif in a startlingly different direction.  Jones effort-lessly blends small-town reality with supernatural sinisterness.

*"The Mummy's Heart" by Norman Partridge.  This one features a monster kid run amok, a psycho who's seen one too many Karloff movies.  The real fun, though, starts when dark crime shades over into dark fantasy.  Lovers of the Universal monster movies will be enthralled by Partridge's re-bandaging of the mummy mythos.

*"Long Way Home: A Pine Deep Story" by Jonathan Maberry.  A quietly haunting piece in its own right, this narrative is also noteworthy for its depiction of Pine Deep several years after the cataclysmic events of the novel trilogy (cf. Stephen King's "One for the Road").  "Long Way Home" excitingly suggests that Maberry is a long way from done with mining the Most Haunted Town in America for story material.

*"The Halloween Men" by Maria V. Snyder.  The most Bradbury-esque entry in the anthology, but the Bradbury of the dystopian
"Usher II" more than Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Snyder's alternate-Venice setting is captivating, and her carnivalesque reworking of the idea of the Halloween mask is terribly clever.

*"Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still" by Caitlin R. Kiernan.
A work that transports readers to a colonized Mars in the far future, yet hearkens back to the ancient Celtic roots of Halloween. Kiernan's story is to be cherished both for its diligent world-building and its mesmerizing prose.

*"We, the Fortunate Bereaved" by Brian Hodge.  The best treat in the whole goody bag.  I'll have more to say about this piece later this week.

As its subtitle heralds, Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre offers a variety of genre approaches to the October holiday.  The anthology furnishes ample proof that new tricks can be wrung from old tropes, so here's hoping that Guran (who bookends the contents with an entertaining intro and editor bio) continues to solicit groundbreaking stories and produces additional all-new Halloween ensembles in the coming autumns.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Neighborhood Haunts

Some surreptitious snapshots of homes around town that have been all decked out for Halloween '13:

Best part of this spread: the animated arachnid on the roof

I love those boarded-over windows

Lazy Bones

Some disconcerting news, though: one of the most famous yard haunters in northern New Jersey has dismantled his display
following pressure from town officials.  Here's what the incredible spread used to look like: