Archive for October, 2011

October Sun

October 18, 2011

The days of October tumble down and swirl away on the breeze, just like the leaves all around. I park my car under some trees that have been dropping bushels of leaves for a good month now, and they still have quite a few more to lose. I don’t mind at all that my car is always covered with the red, green, orange, and yellow foliage every time I go out to it. I clean the leaves off the windows and leave the rest (heh, heh, heh!) — they make a festive, autumnal decoration for my vehicle. On wet days, the leaves are pasted to the hood, trunk, and roof; on balmy dry days, they’ve mostly fluttered off by the time I turn the first corner.

I greatly appreciate the weather we’ve been having, with the warmth hanging on. I love not being cold. I love seeing the sun, though I noticed today how low it hangs in the sky in October, even at high noon. I’ve watched it slowly changing its mind on where to set. In summer, it went down behind the giant cross at St. Mary’s Cemetery; these evenings it’s falling into the woods.

On gray days, mist hovers and floats.

A dark day in October

I have new neighbors who moved in downstairs, and they’re very nice people! I’m glad the lower floors are occupied now. I feel less like a ghost haunting a vacant building.

Anyway, here’s another book that’s good for October:

A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny

A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny (Avon, 1993), comes to us courtesy of my friend Nick, who remembered loving the book years ago. It’s a little hard to acquire these days; but Nick, like another well-known adventurer/scholar, is — how shall one put it? — an “obtainer of rare antiquities.” He relocated a copy for himself and even an extra one for me, which he most kindly sent! The idea is that several of us are reading the book together (though we’re in far-flung places) during the month of October, after which we’ll compare notes.

The book lends itself well to that, because it’s divided into 31 chapters, named “October 1,” “October 2,” “October 3,” etc. Most are just a couple pages long, so it’s something even I stand a good chance of getting through (though not quite on time — I’m already well behind schedule). I’m reading a few pages just before bed each night.

Zelazny dedicated the book this way: “To — Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Albert Payson Terhune, and the makers of a lot of old movies — Thanks.” Pretty cool, huh? Isn’t that dedication quite an endorsement? The work also includes delightfully strange illustrations by Gahan Wilson.

Anyway, like some other October books we know, this one is a loving tribute to the Hallowe’en season: in particular, to the iconic characters of horror, mystery, and spookiness. In this tale you will find Jack the Ripper, a terrifying Count, a Good Doctor who harnesses lightning for his questionable experiments, Mr. Larry Talbot who keeps a close eye on the moon, a Great Detective who smokes a pipe, and even some betentacled Great Old Ones. Some of these characters are “Openers,” bent upon letting horrors out of mirrors and closets when the time is right, which will unleash devastation on the world; some are “Closers,” dedicated to keeping the evils locked away and the world safe for humankind. It’s fascinating to find out which are which — the book is full of surprises.

What caught my attention right from the start was the skillful rendering of the tale’s narrator, a watchdog named Snuff. This faithful and formidable canine deserves a place among the ranks of the all-time great non-human protagonists such as Hazel-rah and Chaunticleer.

I understand that it’s pretty expensive to buy nowadays, but there are perhaps library copies to be found.

Anyway, let’s head back on out into October (foggy nights and days of the lowering sun) with a few photos and random flotsam:

One of my jack-o'-lanterns this year, 2011

 From my story “The Bone Man”:

“John is a skeleton,

John is dead,

All bony fingers,

Bony head;

No life in him,

Not a breath.

Lazy in life,

He’s restless in death.

All bony fingers,

Bony head —

Hope he’s not standing

By your bed!”

The other of my jack-o'-lanterns, 2011 (If I'm carving two, I usually try to make a friendly, happy one and a darker, less charitable one; Good Cop, Bad Cop . . . a Closer and an Opener, if you will.)

From “The Bone Man”:

“The skull’s eyes and triangular nose were simply the orange of the paper showing through, but they suggested a glowing, infernal light inside, like a jack-o’-lantern’s flame. The mouth was an exaggerated comb-like grid of orange lines. The image triggered a memory . . .”

"Sometimes I would rest my chin on the warm lid of a jack-o'-lantern and gaze out over the waving millet, searching the blue crystal stars . . ." -- from DRAGONFLY

From “The Bone Man”:

“The skeleton was just standing there, close enough to touch, but not reaching out, not bending forward, not really even seeming to look down at the kid. Just standing, standing. No skin, no rags of clothing — just two or three wisps of hair stuck to the skull, wiggly black lines . . .”

"We gave them scary faces, happy, sad, laughing, scowling, crescent-eyed, zigzag, mouths fanged, toothless, froggish. Then, with the falling of the dark, we set them aglow . . ." -- from DRAGONFLY

From “The Bone Man”:

“It was dark ahead of him, though fire still hung in the vanished sun’s wake.”

"We definitely had a problem. There were unearthly noises almost every night, increasing in volume and frenzy as the lightless bottom of the month drew nearer . . ." -- from DRAGONFLY

From “The Bone Man”:

“All around him, it was as if veils dropped away, and Conlin was walking back into the streets of his childhood. Here, under the breeze-shivery maples and oaks slouching toward cold, it was no longer the age of the Internet and little phones in your pocket . . .”

Illinois oaks, 2006

“Besides the autumn poets sing,

A few prosaic days

A little this side of the snow

And that side of the haze.”

— Emily Dickinson

We’re still in the market for Hallowe’en thoughts, stories, eerie tales, descriptions, autumnal musings, howls, sepulchral mutterings . . . and to that we’ll add an invitation to quote us a passage from a well-loved autumn book (scary, beautiful, or otherwise [or both]) . . . a favorite Octoberish poem . . . or just to tell us about a time when a storyteller gave you a chill for which you were grateful!

Happy Hallowe’en!

Hallowe’en Comes Early

October 4, 2011

Hallowe’en has crept early upon the Uncanny City. I’m going to kick the season off with an unsettling personal experience that is absolutely true. So pause in your pumpkin-carving, shut down the cobweb-making machine just for a moment, and pull up a rickety chair. And you may want to toss another log on the fire, because the air is about to get noticeably chillier, and shadows will encroach . . .

Pittsburgh's sprawling and picturesque Allegheny Cemetery

These photos were actually taken a year ago, in very early November, as I recall.

The grave of Stephen Foster, American songwriter, 1826-1864

We have some amazing cemeteries here in Pittsburgh. Chief among the ones I’ve seen is the nearly endless Allegheny Cemetery, which seems to go on forever in all directions. Yes, Stephen Foster is buried there.

Autumn colors blaze in Allegheny Cemetery.

The true experience I am about to relate takes place in Allegheny Cemetery. It happened just a couple weeks ago, in mid-September.

Toward evening, shadows lengthen.

Some friends who are photographers were in the cemetery one afternoon to take pictures of the beautiful, somber, and intriguing work of many a stone-crafter, both mason and sculptor. And I was there, too.

Now, one of my friends has a two-year-old daughter, who also came along that day, playing and wandering among the headstones, rolling in the grass, enjoying the slanting light and crisp air of fall.

This little girl, whom I’ll call “Abbie” (not her real name), is a precocious two-year-old, who knows the names of many people, animals, numbers, and letters. She likes other babies and loves to point them out. When she sees a baby nearby, or in a picture, or on TV, she’ll announce, “Baby! Baby!” In some cases, when something looks like a baby, she’ll identify it as such. For example, when we watched Princess Mononoke and she saw the little forest-spirits with the hairless, rattly heads, she said, “Baby! Baby!”

Well, as we wandered through the cemetery that afternoon, every so often, Abbie would glance toward our right or left and say, “Baby! Baby!” But we could see no one there. We saw only grassy expanses, trees, and the unending rows of gravestones marching away over the hillsides. “Baby!” Abbie would say, never quite pointing. She seemed neither happy nor alarmed; she was just making an observation.

Mausoleum, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh

After a few minutes, she would look around quizzically and ask, “Where baby? Where baby?” She wasn’t seeing the baby any more. Then, another five or ten minutes later, she’d look to one side of the path and say “Baby!” We tried hard but couldn’t see anything she might be identifying as a “baby.” There were no cherubic statues, no baby photos on grave markers. Once, Abbie’s mother pointed at a seraph, a distinctly adult-looking angel statue, and asked, “Is that a baby?” Abbie displayed no reaction or interest.

It gets even more bizarre. This is probably the most photogenic and intriguing mausoleum in the cemetery. When we got near it — and only near it — Abbie did something I’ve never seen her do before, and not since. She raised both hands and grasped the hair above her ears/at her temples and began to stagger, moving in an aimless, disoriented path back and forth, almost in circles. Her face wore a dazed, puzzled expression . . . as if her head were filled with a sound she’d never heard before — a continuous, pervasive sound that confused her.

One of the other adults remarked that it looked as though Abbie were “being drawn by some force.” (Those were the exact words she used.) When we moved away from the mausoleum, this odd behavior ceased, and Abbie went right on playing and exploring.

Afterward, we theorized that children may be receptive to sights, sounds, and impressions that we adults are not. Does the passing of years place in us a “filter” that screens out the unseen world? What presence, visible only to Abbie, may have tagged along with us across the stone-lined lawns that afternoon, perhaps curious, perhaps glad for some company — perhaps, a carefree juvenile like Abbie herself, exploring the strangeness and wonder of an afternoon outdoors in autumn? And what hum or whispering filled the air around that crumbling house of the dead?

So there it is: the beginning of the Hallowe’en season here in Pittsburgh, and there, wherever you are. It’s time for the telling of tales. Does anyone care to contribute an unsettling account of your own? Every family has its share of weird tales — the thing that happened to Great-Uncle Bob that night out behind the horse barn, or that face Aunt Bonnie saw at the window of her house on Coal Street. You can change names freely and pretend it’s the experience of some other family; the important thing is the story! It needn’t even be something that happened to anyone you know. It could be a rumor handed down at your junior high school . . . something you read or heard or saw on TV . . . or perhaps just an impression you had. Remember that one house in the town you lived in as a kid? — that one house out by the railroad tracks where the woods began, that you were always sure wasn’t quite right. Describe a creepy place to us!

Let us tell tales, all you who delight in a good Hallowe’en yarn. I’ll jump in with a few more myself! If you’re absolutely stuck, you can throw out a “What if you . . .?” scenario — my anonymous friend Chris and I used to have hours of fun with that as kids! We’d try to come up with the eeriest, scariest scenarios we could, always putting the other person into them as the main character, always trying to top the one before. “What if you were out at night in the woods behind the pond, because you realized you’d left your mom’s jeweled brooch down there when you were playing earlier, and you had to get it back by all means, and then you saw . . .” [Never mind that we never played in those woods even in the daytime; or that neither of our moms had a “jeweled brooch”; or that either of us would have had any interest in playing with such — but THE POINT IS, you’re in the woods at night, and . . .]

So (almost) anything goes! What tales are there? Who will tell us a story for the long-shadow season?