The masterminds behind the brand new Halloween and fall anthology, A Shadow of Autumn, have interviewed each of its authors…and it’s my turn on the firing line. Head on over to the book’s website and take a look, and check out the other author interviews while you’re there. Autumn’s team have assembled a great collection of folks to come together for a wicked Halloween party. I’m honored to be part of it.
The Demonologist, an account of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s career in demonology, is one creepy-ass book. The Warrens’ names should sound familiar if you’re an “Amityville Horror” obsessive. (I am—with the original conspiracy, anyway, not the tepid film series.) To those who followed the saga of 112 Ocean Ave, either in its heyday, or in subsequent books, television specials, and/or truly abhorrent film adaptations, the Warrens should already feel like family. When the Lutz family fled their brief home after only 28 days and spouted off about the evil residing within, outsiders who eventually became involved in the controversy were actively split in regards to the legitimacy of the claims. In short, they either believed the Lutzes, or they didn’t. The Warrens and other occult specialists did, Law enforcement didn’t, and the media didn’t care—but they covered every inch of it like hungry canines.
While The Demonologist does mention Amityville from time to time, the Warrens don’t have much to say on the subject, other than they believed in the Lutzes and tried to help as best as they could. Instead, the book is actually a very detailed account of their careers and their life together—and of the evil that often followed them home from their “exorcisms.” The Warrens generally helped rid two kinds of infestation: oppression (ongoing harassment by a demon to break down a person’s will and make their body easier to inhabit) or possession (the invasion of a person’s body by a foreign entity). The book is largely comprised of direct quotes from Ed and Lorraine themselves, relating their own experience and encounters.
The book’s author, Gerald Daniel Brittle, does a commendable job taking this information and weaving in relevant information to fill in the gaps and create a coherent narrative. Chapters alternate between recollections of more memorable visits to homes where demon infestations once occurred, and the Warrens’ clear explanations of demonology in answers to questions author Brittle poses—and it’s especially helpful that Brittle asks the same questions that you or I would while reading the book.
What exactly is demonology? How does one become a demonologist? Because psychology is so often mentioned alongside cases where demonology (specifically exorcisms) is involved, does that mean there is a correlation between the two? Why don’t more people know about demonology?
Ed mainly handles these questions, answering each with a wealth of information based on his years of experience in the field. While Lorraine, too, is considered a demonologist, she instead refers to herself as a clairvoyant—one who is more sensitive to her surroundings and capable of seeing, hearing, and sensing things that most people do not. Houses infested with demons, she explains in the book, give off moods just like a human being does, and she is able to sense these moods during her preliminary walkthroughs of the houses in question. She also claims to see “auras,” which provide information – in the form of different colored halos – that surround every human being.
Even with Ed matter-of-factly reiterating information from past cases, the book is effortlessly creepy. A typical person who saw 1973’s The Exorcist and found it over-the-top would be shocked at how that film only managed to scratch the surface of what a true exorcism entails, and the traits those infested with a demon or demons may possess. The Exorcist featured unnatural vomit, physical manipulation of the unfortunate host, wildly fluctuating temperatures surrounding the possessed, and the knowledge of previously unknown languages. Ed Warren verifies all of this activity in the book. What The Exorcist didn’t portray was the materialization/dematerialization of objects, faces of the possessed briefly transforming into that of an animal’s, the smell or even physical appearance of excrement, or the presentation of foreign objects not previously located in the house. In one instance during an exorcism, Ed claimed a softball-sized rock appeared in midair and thudded on the floor, and upon having the rock tested by a specialist at a nearby university, confirmed that that specific rock was from a wooded area over 75 miles away. It’s this kind of information – unorthodox, unusual, and inherently unthreatening – that truly makes the claims that much more unnerving. Yes, if during The Exorcist Regan’s face had broken out into that of a cat or dog (or a gorilla, which Ed claims occurs the most frequently), the audience would have broken out into jeers. But with the mere explanation of that having happened in the past before you only in words, your imagination fills in the gaps, and it becomes a genuinely frightening thought—because that simply does not jibe with everything we like to think we know about the subject of exorcism. We think spinning heads and pea soup, not animal noises and mysterious stones falling from the sky and pelting the house of the afflicted.
While the book touches on some rather famous cases, such as West Germany’s Annaliese Michele (which inspired The Exorcism of Emily Rose), and the possession of Robbie Mannheim (alias), a boy from Maryland (which later inspired The Exorcist), a large portion is dedicated to the oppression/possession of the Donovan family. It is during these pages when the book is at its creepiest, and photographs of the damage done by the spirits are present.
Ed shares one particular encounter – not related to a case the Warrens were investigating – that I found especially unnerving, only because of how random the encounter was:
Only a few months ago, Lorraine and I had just been on a television show uptown in New York City. Afterwards, we took a taxi down to Chinatown for lunch. As we were walking along the street we saw there was some trouble at the corner, with police cars all around. So I suggested we cut through a walkway or alley on our left-hand size, which led to Mott Street.
Well, we took the alley, which was full of beat-up trashcans overflowing with garbage. Flies, maggots, and vermin were everywhere. The combination of the heat and the stink of decomposing garbage quickly began to sour our stomachs. Nevertheless, we kept going. Further back, the alley crooked slightly, so that beyond the middle you could no longer see the street.
We walked quickly, but as we got to the middle of the alleyway, at the end of this long row of trashcans, we saw two feet sticking out. I told Lorraine to stand still while I walked up ahead. When I got closer, I saw it was a man—a derelict. He was a Caucasian, between thirty-five and sixty-five—you couldn’t tell. The man was barely alive, sitting up against the wall with his legs stretched out into the path. He was filthier than anyone I have ever seen: covered with sores and scabs, and obviously riddled with disease.
But that just begins to tell the story. Because piled on top of him – as though he were sitting in bed with a quilt over him – were heaps of runny, putrefying garbage. This foul mess covered the man all the way up to his chest and down to his knees. His arms were plopped in the middle of this rotting slop, and flies were landing all over his face and body. Rats had apparently been gnawing on his feet and toes. It was evident the man hadn’t moved in days.
Ironically, his shoes were neatly placed beside him, shined up and ready to go. Now I have been in war and I have seen spiritual abominations in haunted houses but I doubt if I’ve ever seen anything so repulsive or disgusting in my life. How could this happen? How could a human being be reduced to such a stage?
I looked at this poor, wretched soul from the feet up, and was overtaken with compassion and grief. When I finally came to look upon his face, I was stunned and instinctively took a step back. His face was twisted into a perverse sneer—and there was that ugly, inhuman look of delirium in his eyes. Then I knew what had happened to him. And what was possessing that man, in turn, knew me, too.
‘You bastard!’ I said to it, so sickened was I by this scene. It laughed, mockingly. ‘I am killing him,’ it said to me. ‘In a few days, he will be dead. And do you know, there is nothing you can do about it. Because it is already done.’
Also in the book are several pages of transcribed audiotapes featuring Ed’s interrogations with the possessed. A piece of one of those interrogations is as follows:
Voice: I do not choose to be here!
Ed Warren (EW): Why did you come then?
Voice: I am under the Power!
EW: Whose power?
Voice: A white light!
EW: Describe yourself to me.
Voice: No. (A crucifix is then set in place, followed by agonized screaming by the possessing spirit.)
EW: Describe yourself to me!
Voice: I must in truth tell you what I look like. I am wicked—and ugly looking. I am inhuman. I am vindictive. I have a horrible face. I have much gross hair on my body. My eyes are deepsunk. I am black all over. I am burnt. I grow hair. My nails are long, my toes are clawed. I have a tail. I use a spear. What else do you want to know?
EW: What do you call yourself?
Voice: (Proclaiming) I am Resisilobus! I am Resisilobus!
And another, in which the possessing entity allegedly called himself Fred and spoke in a British cockney accent:
EW: Do you want me to bring a priest in here?
Voice: Yeah, all right. Bring ‘im in here. I’ll kick ‘im in the backside.
EW: What would you say if the Blessed Mother told you to leave, Fred?
Voice: Yeccch. Ugh.
EW: Do you know what this is, Fred? What do you see?
Voice: Uh…a cross.
EW: That’s right, a cross. That cross means your days are numbered here.
Voice: I’m gonna chop somebody’s head off.
EW: The next time I come back here, Fred, you’d better be gone. Because the next time I come I’m bringing a very powerful exorcist with me, someone you won’t want to mess with.
Voice: (There is a long lull.) Ed. Ed. Ed…Ed…Ed-ward.
EW: What is it, Fred?
Voice: Let’s play exorcist. Go get the holy water.
The Demonologist is infinitely fascinating to those with even a passing interest in the subject, regardless of where your belief system might lie. However, I must warn you that this book is definitely not for everyone. If you are a person who fervently believes that the world you see before you is all there is to see—that there’s nothing beyond—then you will probably receive no enjoyment from this book whatsoever. While the history and information would probably be interesting to all readers, its claims would be so easily dismissed from the first page that there would be no point for some people to continue reading. For all intents and purposes, the book is labeled and considered non-fiction—much to the chagrin of the more close-minded that question that label with a smirk.
I am a skeptic, by and large. I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts and demons and everything in between, but I also don’t believe things like that are impossible, either. Unlikely, perhaps—but not impossible. So when Ed recites, without a hint of irony, his experiences with haunted mirrors, or Ouija boards presenting very real dangers, your own personal prejudice is going to determine how you react. Because I am not 100% on board with the beliefs of the Warrens, I found some of the claims bordering on absurdity. However, the Warrens firmly believe in their careers as demonologists, and in the unseen entities they battle on almost a daily basis, and so because of that the book gets my respect. They were fully aware, even during the writing of this book, that they were opening themselves up to mockery by the more close-minded, but they were not deterred by that fact—instead, their aim of the book remains emphatically clear: demons are very real, and can very easily enter our world. The Warrens dictate what kind of people are more open to these invading entities (those who spend most of their days angry, or depressed; those considering suicide; alcoholics/drug addicts), and what things a person has to do to invite them in. (While the Warrens resist talking specifically about what a person has to do to entice these entities, they do confirm certain ceremonies performed by various people who later became victims of demons they foolishly invited into their life.)
Neurologist Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society (which is like being president of Sticks in the Mud, Inc.) has investigated the claims of the Warrens, and is pretty quick to dismiss their history as demonologists. “The Warrens are good at telling ghost stories. You could do a lot of movies based on the stories they have spun. But there’s absolutely no reason to believe there is any legitimacy to them.”
To lend a little credibility to the Warrens’ careers, it should be noted that they have never accepted payment from those claiming to suffer from demonic oppression or possession. If you called the Warrens, they came to you, and if they determined your claims were genuine, they stayed until the invading entities were gone—for free. Further, they even insisted on bringing home with them any particular items that may have been the catalyst for an invading demonic entity in the first place. They reason that to leave the objects with the family runs the risk of letting the same demon back into their lives, or to destroy the cursed item would unleash the demon into the world in general. And so, their “dark museum” grew considerably over the years:
There are about a hundred items in the collection so far, and almost every item has a story attached to it. There’s a string of pearls that when worn around the neck, strangles the wearer. There’s the long black spike a satanic witch used long ago to murder her newborn infant as a sacrifice to the devil. There is the sage plaster doll dressed in Victorian clothing that not only took on the features of the old lady who once owned it, but became animated and behaved like a human being for over 20 years. There are the crania of human skulls that have been used as “chalices of ecstasy” for drinking human blood during witchcraft rituals. There’s the coffin in which a possessed man slept each night for his whole adult life. There are stones – some quite sizeable – that fell out of the sky onto homes under diabolical siege. There are crucifixes that have actually been exploded by demonic spirits and excrement. There are written pacts with the devil, the black candles and conjuring book from the Hillman case, and by the door to Ed’s office is hung the conjuring mirror take from Oliver Bernbaum’s house in New Jersey. The planchette and burned picture frames from the Dononvan case are displayed on a table not far from a wooden cabinet in which Annabelle, the Raggedy Ann doll, now sits holding a plain wood crucifix in her little cloth hand.
The Demonologist was first published in 1980 and then for a long time afterwards was out of print, but a new edition is available, and time has been well to its contents. The information remains rich, intriguing, and scary. While Ed Warren is sadly no longer with us (he died in 2006), Lorraine has continued the battle against the darkness as a member of The New England Society for Psychic Research.
2013’s The Conjuring, directed by filmmaker James Wan, dove into the Warrens’ past to tell the story of the Perrons, a Rhode Island family who dealt with a demon infestation of their own during the 1970s. While the exploits of the family may have been discussed in the book, their name is never used, so it’s hard to say. The Perron family have maintained that, for the most part, the events of the film occurred as presented — including the possession of the mother. In a letter to Horror Movies.ca, Andrea Perron wrote: “The Conjuring is based on a ‘true story’…our story. However, the film is not based on my trilogy ‘House of Darkness, House of Light’. It is, instead, based upon the case files of Ed & Lorraine Warren. … There are liberties taken and a few discrepancies, but overall it is what it claims to be — based on a true story, believe it or not.” The stellar direction by Wan (also responsible for Insidious and Dead Silence, among others) takes an otherwise clunky script and churns out an excellent horror film – though it’s one that may or may not play fast and loose with the events as dictated by the family who claim to have lived them. [Norma Sutcliffe, the current owner of the Perrons’ former home, has gotten so sick of the tourists who have come to see the legendary house that she’s put together a comprehensive video dunking the claims found in Andrea Perron’s auto-biographical trilogy. Strangely enough, Andrea put together her own video with Norma, whom she refers to as “her friend,” so Norma could share the “spooky experiences” she’s had while living there.]
The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist, another infamous Warren case, is currently in production with Wan back at the helm, and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga returning as Ed and Lorraine Warren, respectively.
All of the Hollywood magic and she-said/she-said aside, The Demonologist remains a powerful, well-researched, and eerie piece of writing, and regardless on which side of the fence you stand – skeptic or believer – it covers interesting ground.
The Demonologist is available on Amazon, naturally, and several chunks can be sampled here.
For more information on the Warrens, be sure to check out their (woefully out-of-date) official website.
Alan Ryan’s 1986 anthology, Halloween Horrors, is probably the best short story collection out there concerning our favorite dark day of the year. An author of the macabre himself (some novels being Dead White and Cast a Cold Eye), Ryan knew just which authors to solicit for his celebration of All Hallow’s Eve. Luckily, the stories aren’t just creepy, but they re-imagine both the many myths of Halloween and the ambiance of autumn — which any proper Halloween story should do. My biggest annoyance with modern Halloween anthologies is the willingness for authors and editors to just write a horror story, set it on October 31st, and call it a day. Such a thing is entirely lazy — a killer or ghost on the loose on Halloween is no different from one loose on Christmas. The myths of Halloween are literally waiting to be plucked and re-imagined for proper literal celebrations. Ryan’s collection aptly does so, with tremendous results. These are my personal favorites:
“He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” by Robert R. McCammon
This is an interesting choice to begin the collection, as it is the most fantastic and unusual. Alternating between creepy and morbidly funny, a man named Dan, who is a brand new citizen of a small town, is invited to a Halloween meeting at a neighbor’s house. At first expecting a brief Halloween get-together, he is shocked to hear an itinerary being read out loud – more specifically, a list of demands – that each person present at the party is responsible for placing outside their front door that same night…items to appease the dark, mysterious figure who awards the town with good luck and good harvest during the year. Most of the items appear to be innocuous – an old sweater, a model boat someone had assembled – but when Dan is told he must offer this figure the first joint of his young daughter’s finger, he leaves in a huff, thinking it was a joke gone too far. How very wrong he is. “He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door” is trick-or-treating at its most deviant and dangerous. And not only that, but it harkens back to the times in which food and animals were offered and effigies were burned in order to appease the Celts’ Pagan gods of harvest. In the story, you’ve got two choices: appease the figure, or don’t, but if you don’t…he’ll come knocking.
“Eyes” by Charles Grant
In the mini introduction to “Eyes,” editor Ryan explains that for this story, he wanted something “nasty.” Well, he asked for it, and he got it. Ron, the story’s pro(an?)tagonist, is an angry and haunted man, whose son is recently deceased. The accidental death of the son, who had suffered from mental deficiencies, is the catalyst for Ron’s horrifying Halloween night, as his son returns every October to punish his father. And all during this day, when Ron knows his son’s revisitation is inevitable, sets of eyes hover everywhere in the darkness and judge him with their orange orbs of light. Why eyes? You’ll have to read this haunting story for yourself. Grant uses short but very blunt sentences to tell his story, much to great effect. It just might be the darkest and perhaps angriest in the collection, but it’s also filled with immense regret, mourning, and sadness. The innocence of the son is enough to bring tears to your eyes—and that’s saying something for a story with an ending as “nasty” as this one. Of the entire book, this story always lingers in my mind long after I complete my yearly re-read.
“The Samhain Feis” by Peter Tremayne
The past is resurrected in a big way by setting the story where Halloween all began: Ireland. Katy has escaped her abusive and hurtful husband with her young son, Mike, and high-tails it for a week to a small, remote village in Ireland. It’s there she meets an older gentleman named Flaherty, who warns her of the time of year that is fast approaching: Samhain, aka Halloween—not one about trick-or-treaters and costumes, but pure, undeniable evil. Katy laughs off these stories, just happy to be away from her husband, but when Mike begins to spend all his time with an imaginary friend named Seán Rua – a name that sends Flaherty into a paranoid frenzy – and when Mike’s physical appearance seems to gradually change, Katy begins to believe that maybe the stories are real after all. Especially when the evil follows her home. “The Samhain Feis” successfully recalls the origins of Halloween, even setting the story right where it all began. The characters and descriptions of Ireland are very genuine and realistic (courtesy of its author, who spent time living there while working at a newspaper). And it certainly helps that it, too, ends with a creepy shock.
“Trickster” by Steve Rasnic Tem
Greg mourns his deceased brother, Alex, whose memory comes alive every Halloween. The story alternates between the present, in which Greg believes he is catching glimpses of Alex moving in between the rowdy crowds of San Francisco during a Halloween celebration, and the past, where random recollections of Alex’s pranks – becoming increasingly morbid – are remembered. Greg pursues his dead brother more and more persistently until…what? Is the Halloween festival bringing back memories of his dead brother, or has he really come back from the dead – complete with clown costume and mask – to say hello? While the whole story is intriguing and a quick read, the more interesting parts of it (for me, anyway) are when Alex’s pranks are broken down and explained in graphic detail. What Greg remembers as harmless and silly are actually quite graphic, and it becomes a game of “Can Alex top himself?” as each prank is recalled. If I had a brother whose “pranks” consisted of pretending to stab a baby to death – complete with bloody knife and decimated doll – I’d start to wonder if there were something seriously wrong with him.
“Miss Mack” by Michael McDowell
This story doesn’t really kick into horror gear until the last few pages. What starts off with the burgeoning of a rather unusual friendship between two schoolteachers, Miss Mack and Miss Faulk, soon becomes a tale of spite, revenge, and…well, it’s hard to say. Unrequited love is definitely at play here in the form of a love triangle (and to what extent the two school teachers love each other is left completely ambiguous), and it impacts the resolution to the story, which doesn’t end so well for one of our characters. “Miss Mack” is a different beast from the rest of the stories in that, for this one particular character, he/she has no idea what has happened to them. There are no inklings, no motives, and no clues as to if he/she has done something to deserve what’s taken place. The other characters in the other stories are flawed in some way, and through either their actions or inactions, have set things in motion, if not downright deserved the horrid thing that’s happened to them. But for the character in “Miss Mack,” you can’t help but sympathize with them, as they truly and utterly did not deserve the fate they received.
“Hollow Eyes” by Guy N. Smith
A father catches his daughter in a rather…er…uncompromising position with the boy she has been seeing—and the boy that he detests with nearly every of his fibers. A chase ensues, leading him (with a gun in his pocket) to a neighborhood bonfire. It is there that his momentary hatred of his daughter’s boyfriend is forgotten as he gasps at the horrid sight hanging just before him from a tree branch. And he soon realizes that he’s in a lot bigger trouble than he ever could have imagined. “Hollow Eyes” feels more like a nightmare than anything else—fragments of thoughts cobbled together from hazy memories and reiterated quickly almost as if the story’s teller were working against an imminent deadline. There are lapses in logic that feel nearly several pages long, as if you’d missed one piece of information that explained why the father is doing the things that he is doing, why he detests her daughter’s boyfriend so much, and why is it he’s gone so mad so quickly…but that works as a strength to the story. You’re barely just figuring out what the hell is up with Point A when Point B is already showing up to muddy the waters. It’s probably the most abstract story in Halloween Horrors and one that is not afraid to get its hands dirty—and bloody.
“The Halloween House” by Alan Ryan
If you can allow all the suspension of disbelief in the world, then “The Halloween House” is fun and rewarding. What starts off as a typical haunted house story ends as anything but, and four high school kids learn the hard way that Halloween isn’t just a holiday, but a living thing that literally surrounds them. “The Halloween House” has a charming beginning, in which Dale forgoes all common sense in order to try and impress Colleen, a girl with whom he is very much infatuated. The first few pages’ worth of descriptions can be tedious, but the story soon moves at a clip, ending in a twist that would normally be heavily forecasted midway through the story if the twist itself weren’t so completely absurd (in every way that’s good, that is).
“The Pumpkin” by Bill Pronzini
A nightmarish little story about an award-winning pumpkin farmer who yearns to take home the ribbon again in the coming year’s Pumpkin Festival. A ghastly discovery in the corner of his field, however, leaves the farmer’s wife shaken, and a farmhand repeatedly making signs of the cross. Together, they beg him to leave the pumpkin right where it is, for to unearth it would be to unleash an ancient evil the world has never known. The farmer laughs at their request, but agrees anyway, figuring why bother otherwise? That is until he fails to bring home that year’s prize at the Pumpkin Festival. His anger leads to boozing, which leads him to make some rather foolish decisions…and go back on his word. And carnage ensues. There’s not much to say about “The Pumpkin” other than it’s an effective and pulpy little yarn that manages not only to give you the creeps in that innocent and harmless sort of way, but also recall the feeling and mood of Halloween that I’m sure we all look back on and yearn for in some way every year. The descriptions of small-town festivities and the all-around blanket of autumn-tinged foliage is a nice pleasant interlude to the horror that ends the story…and perhaps even existence as we know it. Not bad for a pumpkin!
“Apples” by Ramsey Campbell
Harry and his friends, Colin and Andrew, think it’s fun and funny to sneak into Mr. Gray’s yard and steal apples off his tree—something he’s intent on guarding, as he’s gone as far as placing broken glass beneath the hedges that line his property. The kids won’t be deterred, however, and they hop the fence to help themselves to the old coot’s apple tree. In a surprise move, Mr. Gray bursts from his house with hedge trimmers and chases them, but soon suffers a mortal heart attack in the process. The kids flee and his body is soon removed…but if he’s dead, why does Harry see a face appear in the window of Mr. Gray’s house? Why does the rotten stench of apples seem to follow him everywhere he goes? “Apples” ends in a very creepy, if not too-cleanly-concluded fashion, and the moral of the story remains dangerously clear: don’t steal apples from crazy old men.
“Pranks” by Robert Bloch
And the book, as they say, ends with a bang. The name “Robert Bloch” should be ingrained in your memory, even if you’ve never actually read his works – namely Psycho, which would go on to inspire perhaps the greatest horror film of all time (and kick-start the slasher movement). Made up of little vignettes featuring neighborhood parents, the story’s concept is difficult to grasp at first until you realize the purpose behind constantly jumping from household to household – each of them with a child late coming home from trick-or-treating. Very late. And within one of these households, something very sinister and unnatural is unfolding under the dark Halloween sky. “Pranks” is the eeriest story in the collection, and boasts the best ending. It’s one that doesn’t even become inherently creepy until the rapid final pages, in which you begin to play catch up and realize just what’s going on. And it’s an ending you will reread over and over, finding it so completely unbelievable that you’ll feel the need to make sure what you’ve read isn’t just your mind playing tricks on you. Or pranks.
Halloween Horrors, sadly, has been out of print for the last several years, but keeping an eye on Amazon or eBay from time to time might reward your diligence. Here’s hoping the genre- and Halloween-loving Cemetery Dance will resurrect this tome for another generation to pour over every October. The stories, though going on thirty years old, still pack a mean punch, and many of them – especially “Eyes” – will leave you feeling haunted long after you finish the collection’s last page and set it down until Halloween returns the following year.
If you don’t have the stomach for bad reviews, then why on earth did you become, or even consider becoming, a writer? Why the hell are you fathoming such a misguided idea? Have you lost your beautiful mind? Do you know what you’re in for? Do you have any idea how mean people can be?
In the same way people are mystified when they get bitten by sharks after going into the ocean, aka where sharks live, some writers become blindsided by the inevitable bad feedback of their cherished, long suffered-over, great American novel – writers who thought, for whatever reason, that everyone in existence was going to love it. “Don’t these critics understand? This is my life’s work. My blood is in this novel. My sweat and heartache.“
No one neither knows that nor cares. And despite what you may think, most critics (or avid readers, at least) respect the art of writing, and don’t seek opportunities to tarnish your good name in publications, or on blogs, or the Amazon user review section. Unless they’re a connoisseur of the crappy, they’re not hoping your book sucks. After all, they had to dedicate their time to reading it, didn’t they? In some cases, they paid for it with their own hard-earned cash-money, right? So, what masochists are peeling back the cover of your book with a sick gleam in their eye and saying, “I can’t wait to hate this.” Very few of these people exist, and the ones who do have gone so severely wrong in their lives that hate-reading a book is the least of their problems.
A fancy little thingamajig called Google Alerts is configured to inform me once a week if there have been any new mentions of my books across the interspectrum. Links to these mentions are supplied to me via email, and after a deep breath, I click, and wait to see what reaction someone has had to my work. Sometimes it’s a great one. Other times…it’s not. And sometimes the not-great feedback waiting for me is vicious or beyond. Sometimes the vitriol spewed forth about my work reeks of such hostility that I start mentally auditing every day of the last year to determine if I’d accidentally aided and abetted a cuckold-like situation, or run down an elderly grandma during an afternoon drive, in an attempt to determine if this cuckolded or vroomed-over individual was related to the person currently lambasting me. Well, in the same way I’ve prepared myself for some readers and critics to hate my work, you better do the same; and you can start by realizing one thing: the hate train’s not going to stop. Ever. And that’s not (necessarily) because your book sucks, but because no one in the history of everything has ever written a book that’s since become universally loved. Not Dracula, Great Expectations, or Catcher in the Rye has enjoyed infallible praise. (Not even Gone Girl!) Think of any book you feel would be spared critical drubbings. Think of your all-time favorite book. Think of the book that touched you on the deepest level. Think of the book that made you realize you’re not at all happy and something in your life needs to change, or that you are happy, and have, at that moment, confronted and subjugated the barrier preventing you from embracing that happiness. Think of the book that saved your life. Think of the defining book that made you want to write. Now, realize someone you’ve never met, and probably never will, hates that book’s fucking guts. “Worst book ever!” they’ve already said about it on Goodreads – probably Frankenstein.
That’s the notion where you, as a writer, can take an odd bit of comfort: no matter how hard you work on your book, no matter how many years you spend poring over each of its words, no matter what emotionally devastating event occurred in your life while you were in the middle of writing Chapter 27, somewhere out there on Planet Earth, someone hates your book. They hate it to death. They hated it before you ever typed or scratched down the first word. They were going to hate your book no matter what you named your protagonist, if you opted for or avoided the split-personality twist ending, if you opened your prologue with lyrics from Bob Dylan instead of The Smiths. And this person may share their thoughts about your book in an eloquent and constructive manner, genuinely wanting to offer points of consideration for when the time comes for you to write the next one. Or, they may just corral their giggling friends around their Macbook’s microphone and laugh uproariously about the perceived stupidity of the work you believe so much in before uploading it to iTunes for free download – a chaotic, fever-dreamed, carnival-like gangbang of hate directed toward everything that means the world to you.
Like it or not, the internet has given everyone a voice. Blogs are free to open – even those that cater to destroying every literature-personified version of yourself, and right in front of your eyes. (Those blogs are super free.) Everyone has become a critic. The idea of book reviews only appearing in printed newspaper and magazine columns, leaving the every-day opinions of readers confined to the library meeting room or the water cooler or Aunt Sophie’s couch, is an archaic notion; something of the past, and very forgotten. Now Aunt Sophie’s got her own blog, and it’s called “Sophie’s Voice.” On it, Aunt Sophie’s going to rip your book to shreds because she bought it on a whim based on the front artwork of the girl in the pink flower dress in the arms of a strapping sailor, but didn’t stop to examine the cover long enough to realize that this sailor was actually wearing hospital scrubs from the asylum he just escaped and is cutting the girl’s head off. “Not what I expected at all!” Aunt Sophie has posted. “I give this book two tea mugs out of five!”
This rant of mine isn’t going to offer you a magical Evil Dead incantation on how to forever ward off negative reviews. There’s no scheme I can share that will enable you to avoid ever putting yourself in that line of fire. If you create, you will be criticized. That’s the only sure thing you will ever know in this world, besides the whole death and taxes thing. And I’m not going to fall back on the old adage of, “Those who can’t create, critique,” because that’s a bullshit fallback created by the artistically sensitive; a lazy straw-man defense that devalues the art of the critique in the first place, which, like it or not, is vital to the artistic movement. But this is what my takeaway message is in all this: once your book is published (and congratulations to you for making it that far) and the feedback starts rolling in, you’ll soon learn how to decipher the difference between a person who hated your book but who is offering valid, respectful, and candid insights on where you went wrong…and those other kinds of “critics” who randomly point their angry fingers at you and decide you’re next on their chopping block. These so-called critics will have the presumption to act like they’re an authority on you and profess to know what was going on in your head while you were writing the very book they’re currently tearing asunder. That’s not their right, nor their privilege. They can gleefully destroy your book all they want, which is their right, but once insults start getting thrown, and once the attacks start to become personal slights, during which blanket judgment starts being passed on you – the author, the person they’ve never met in their lives – that’s when you know you have to walk away from your computer, or phone, or coffee table, and not dedicate to it, as Johnny Cash said, any of your energy, time, or space. And if these reviews are worded in such a way to suggest the reviewer hopes the author stumbles across these thoughts one day, only so said author can experience the heights of humiliation and disillusionment these reviewers are striving toward, that’s when you’ll know the difference between critics who want to help, and armchair reviewers with “blogspot” in their URL who only want to exorcise their own demons and try to ruin your day. However, and unfortunately, that’s not to say their words aren’t going to hurt or offend any less just because their review venue doesn’t hold the same amount of prestige or pedigree as the New York Times. Because their words will hurt. No matter how removed from the process you try to remain, they’re going to hurt. Just always, always, always consider the source – and dear gosh, find something in the review to laugh at, because that’s the best writer’s therapy there is.
The critical process is just as valuable as the writing arts; in the same manner writers have a responsibility to put forth their very best effort before they ask readers for their hard-earned dollars, critics – professional or amateur – have a responsibility to provide honest, objective, non-biased feedback, negative or not, and leave all other prejudices at the door. Remember, reviews can be reviewed. Critiques can be criticized. In the same way a book or novella or short story can be dissected, and its merit quantified, the same thing can be done with reviews. Sometimes reviewers suck at reviewing in the same way they claim writers suck at writing. Sometimes reviewers are nothing more than assholes with an email address. It’s up to you – the struggling writer – to know the difference between a review written to help, and a review written to hurt. And you soon will. You just have to grow that thick skin first. Grow it and keep in mind: there are people out there – perfect strangers – who hope that you fail, and for no reason other than they have nothing better to do. And these people need to suck it.
The time has come again – for both the Collingswood Book Festival, and for me to re-use some of last year’s verbiage because I am lazy! Fellow Jerseyites, Philadelphians, and…people who live in Delaware: you should come visit the Collingswood Book Festival Saturday, 10/3, from 10-4. I will be there selling copies of The End of Summer, as well as The House on Creep Street, the book I co-authored with my writing partner and fellow chum, Chris Evangelista. Check out the festival website to learn more about it.
Book lovers of all ages: join us on Saturday, October 3, 2015 when festival-goers will have an opportunity to stroll more than six blocks of Haddon Avenue filled with authors/speakers for adults and children, as well as booksellers, storytellers, poetry readings, workshops, exhibitors, kid-friendly activities, and entertainment for all ages. This award-winning festival is the longest-running, largest literary event in the Delaware Valley. Remember, all events are free!
It’s September, which equals Halloween. To the real devotees, it’s August that actually equals Halloween, unless we’re being lenient toward the “normals.” But yeah, Halloween lasts 2-3 months a year. Didn’t you know that?
Like many other Halloween obsessees, I like to hoard relevant reading for this time of year. Whether it’s a brand new title or something I like to revisit every year or so, having something appropriate to read as the nights grow longer and darker is essential.
This is one of my absolute favorites:
Halloween, 1963. They call him the October Boy, or Ol’ Hacksaw Face, or Sawtooth Jack. Whatever the name, everybody in this small Midwestern town knows who he is. How he rises from the cornfields every Halloween, a butcher knife in his hand, and makes his way toward town, where gangs of teenage boys eagerly await their chance to confront the legendary nightmare. Both the hunter and the hunted, the October Boy is the prize in an annual rite of life and death.
Pete McCormick knows that killing the October Boy is his one chance to escape a dead-end future in this one-horse town. He’s willing to risk everything, including his life, to be a winner for once. But before the night is over, Pete will look into the saw-toothed face of horror—and discover the terrifying true secret of the October Boy…
Dark Harvest, by Norman Partridge, is deceiving at first. The actual book itself is thin, numbering 170 pages, and at first glance appears to be a children’s novel. Not helping is the quite large typesetting and a line spacing that could be described as generous. I have nothing against material for younger readers, mind you – I still, after all, revisit those infamous Scary Stories books from time to time – it’s just that I was expecting something, on the surface, a bit more adult. I had no idea that what appeared to be a children’s novel was actually a novella geared toward somewhat older readers – that it would contain genuine fears and emotions shared among adolescent and adult characters alike. Dark Harvest may be a quick and breezy read, but in this case, there is no mistaking quality over quantity. And there are definitely themes at play here that are for adult eyes only: alcoholism, anger, sacrifice, abuse, bloodshed, cult worship, child death, and full-on murder.
I almost literally judged a book by its cover.
I really hate to use this analogy, considering Dark Harvest was released a full two years prior to Suzanne Collins’ juggernaut, but it very much is The Hunger Games meets Halloween – only Partridge is clever enough to tie the hunger inflicted upon these kids to the myths and traditions of Halloween itself. You see, young Pete and many of the nameless town’s kids have been locked inside their rooms for the five days leading up to Halloween and given nothing to eat. And then when October 31st finally comes calling, the kids are released into the night to hunt down the October Boy…an unnatural and resurrected figure brought to life by dark magic…and who is literally filled with candy, courtesy of the mysterious figure responsible for bringing him to life. It’s just an extra little incentive for the winner, but one that heightens the viciousness of the kids involved in the hunt. It truly is trick-or-treat at its most twisted and dangerous.
While the majority of your characters are kids, there is nothing lighthearted or even morbidly funny about what’s going down on Halloween night. These kids aren’t out for a gas – they have a very dangerous goal, and it’s literally winner-take-all. Kids drop, one by one, as bloody messes. They are cut in half by sawed-off shotguns or nearly run down by speeding trucks. And the few adults who should care about the well being of their town’s children – especially Officer Ricks, a representative of the law and member of the mysterious Harvester’s Guild – don’t. All they care about is making sure one of the kids is successful in dropping the October Boy, so that the following year will be prosperous for their small town.
Dark Harvest is exactly that: dark. It’s not afraid to get its hands dirty, and it’s not afraid to depict children as the murderous and dangerous beings we like to pretend they aren’t capable of being. Despite their young ages, they have very adult mindsets about their goal. And they’re not afraid to knock each other off in the process. As for our lead character, Pete McCormick, he wants to do what everyone else is trying to do: knock off the October Boy and reap the benefits. But he doesn’t want the luxury car and the big house and all the money and riches that allegedly come with such a prize. He wants to kill the October Boy and use it as a one-way ticket out of his town, where his mother has died, his father has become a drunk, and he’s been left all alone to care for his little sister. All he wants is to leave everything behind and start a new life.
Dark Harvest is at times very conversational, and at others maddeningly bleak and heart-achingly poetic. Partridge is an absolute master at personifying and literalizing regret, through either action or description. Recollections of one character, Dan Shepard, are extremely powerful as he looks back on his life and realizes there’s not much about it he doesn’t wish he could rescind:
Just because he can’t put a name to the furrows life carved in his hands doesn’t mean he can’t see where those ditches run. He knows well enough where they run. He even knows how those ditches were dug. Hell, sometimes he can almost see the shovels working. And tonight he hears those kids screaming in the streets, and he remembers what it was like to be sixteen… or seventeen… or eighteen, and run in their number. When he could believe the things that people told him, and he could chase after a dream until his heart pounded like it was ready to batter its way through his rib cage and take off on its own.
And that’s the way it was back then. For Dan and for all the guys he knew. You remember how it was, because you weren’t really any different. You could believe the things that people told you, too. Their words were gospel, and you trusted them. You believed because you were sixteen… or seventeen… or eighteen. You believed because your dreams had started running up against the Line like it was a brick wall that didn’t have a single crack. And you believed – most of all – because you had to. You needed to believe that someone could get out of this town, same way you needed to believe that that someone just might be you.
You found a job. You filled up your days. And you filled up your nights, too. On one of them you found yourself with a girl who made you feel a little bit better about the way things were, and pretty soon you found yourself with that girl most every night. And a ring went on her finger, and the two of you carried around a couple of keys that matched the same front door, and at night you both found your way through it and closed that door behind you and, together, you waited for the morning to come.
(That last paragraph brings me to tears every time I read it.)
There are no sunny characters in Dark Harvest. Each person we meet is a tragic one. Each looks back on their life and sees nothing but darkness and sadness, and those that don’t can barely be considered human. Even Pete, with whom we are meant to sympathize (and we do), doesn’t see much hope for himself beyond successfully bringing down the October Boy. It’s his only way out. It’s his only way to escape the nothingness that has encapsulated his life.
Patridge uses Dark Harvest to honor Halloween, and to great effect. It recognizes that its roots are strange and often sanitized by Walmart ghost windsocks and grinning skeletons that are having just a blast being dead. And it certainly does a great job using Halloween as a backdrop for a more unsettling and scary realization: that once kids become old enough, they will set out to carve their own place in the world – that the turn-out of the world as we know it is up to them. Some parents will try to guide them as best as they can, and others will be ghosts and non-presences. And even those individuals that kids are raised to trust and respect won’t just be disappointing and disillusioning, but downright dangerous. This extends to every facet of life, from teachers, police officers, upper management, and even the president. Above all, the book preaches: If you make the right choices, you will be rewarded. If you let your desire for fame and fortune guide you, then you are doomed.
And it’s as simple as that.
Having read Dark Harvest again for this write-up, I’ve come to realize it’s one of my favorite books. Halloween is the hook to draw you in, but the meat of the story is regret. We’ve all done something in our past that fills us with nothing but regret – it’s probably the only thing we have in common as human beings – and Dark Harvest harnesses the power to effortlessly draw that regret out and make you see it could just as easily be you making the Run, trying to cross the Line, and dreaming of a better life after taking out the October Boy.
A Shadow of Autumn takes you back to childhood nostalgia while peeling away the mask to reveal things that haunt your worst nightmares. Within these pages, you’ll find the usual denizens of the holiday—demons, witches, ghosts, and bloodsuckers—along with strange and unknown creatures lurking everywhere from innocuous cornfields and pumpkin patches to basement hatches and high school dances.
These fourteen tales of fall magic and Halloween horrors will keep you looking over your shoulder long after the last light of October has waned.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you…
Table of Contents:
“Salt the Earth” by Gerri Leen
“The Halloween Girl of Coldsprings” by J. Tonzelli
“Hattie’s Ghosts” by Scarlett R. Algee
“Simon’s Cottage” by John Kiste
“The Hairy Man” by Julia Benally
“The Triple Dare” by Miracle Austin
“The Bones of Hillside” by Lee A. Forman
“On a Night like Devil’s Night” by Daniel Weaver
“The September Ceremony” by Gwendolyn Kiste
“Hall ‘O Ween Partie!” by Troy Blackford
“Old Temperanceville” by Mike Watt
“The Jorogumo’s Daughter” by K.Z. Morano
“The Twisted End of Vernon Boggs” by Brooke Warra
“The Balfour Witch” by Tawny Kipphorn
Buy A Shadow of Autumn on Kindle! (Other ebook formats and paperback version coming soon.)
Be sure to like the book’s Facebook page to stay up to date on all of the book’s happenings.
“The Halloween Girl of Coldsprings,” my “non-fiction” story about the spirit of a young girl haunting her old town every Halloween, will be appearing in the upcoming anthology A Shadow of Autumn, due out this coming fall. I was asked to contribute a story from my collection, The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween, and “The Halloween Girl” seemed like a safe bet, as that one seems to have struck a chord with readers. A very preliminary website for A Shadow of Autumn is already up, and content will be continuously added between now and the book’s launch. Also be sure to like the book’s Facebook page to stay up to date on all of the book’s happenings.
Roma Gray, fellow author, Halloween kindred spirit, and head mistress of the website “Trick or Treat Thrillers,” recently interviewed me about my books The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween and The House on Creep Street. It was a jolly old time and I once again acted like I knew what I was talking about. We chat about the inspirations behind my writing, my horror obsession, and I also drop some advice for aspiring authors that allowed me to exercise some of my own demons (in a sense) while sounding completely full of myself. Don’t miss it! (Interview here.)