Posts Tagged ‘Hallowe’en’

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?

All Hallows Eve

October 24, 2009

We’ve talked before on this blog about attempts to recapture, as adults, those visceral feelings of excitement and anticipation we had as kids on the night before Christmas, lying in our dark bedrooms . . . or before our birthdays . . . or at the notion of school letting out for the summer or even for the weekend. I remember getting some of that feeling in the darkened movie theater, waiting for the feature to start.

Well, one time I’ve discovered that I experience that shivery, excited, tingly-stomach feeling as a grownup is in the few days before the World Fantasy Convention. I leave for San Jose on Wednesday the 28th, and I get back on November 3rd, so be advised that there won’t be a blog post during the Hallowe’en weekend. That very night, the 31st (Lord willing), I’ll be having dinner with my agents and some other clients of JABberwocky, the agency that represents me. (That wasn’t a typo in the name, by the way: the first three letters are the initials of the agency’s owner.) So this weekend I’m battening down the hatches, preparing lessons, packing, and timing & practicing the public reading I’m scheduled to do at 8:30 Thursday night, California time. Please hold a good thought for me — I’m desperately hoping even a few people will come to my reading. It’s awfully hard to draw a crowd when you’re an unknown writer, at a Con where so much cool stuff is going on. And I know none of my usual friends/loyal reading-supporters will be there this year. . . .

Anyway, I’ll take my camera along, and I hope to have a bunch of pictures to post next time.

If anyone wants to take a look at what the convention is all about, here’s the website: http://www.worldfantasy2009.org

And here’s a nice grid they made of what’s happening where at what times:

http://www.worldfantasy2009.org/wp-content/uploads/GridTable.pdf

But anyway. . . . here we are in Hallowe’en week, and I hope everyone has been enjoying the season! One thing I did to celebrate was to rewatch the Buffy Season 2 episode “Halloween” — one of the classics. And I’ve been reading a couple things by the old-time horror writer Arthur Machen, who greatly influenced H.P. Lovecraft. More about that in the future. . . .

But for now, we need a Hallowe’en story, and here’s a true one, courtesy of my dad. This actually happened to him. He told and retold this tale throughout his life. There are no ghost stories like old family ghost stories, because you get to grow up with them; you get to hear them over and over, spanning different ages of your life. You internalize them, as the trees swallow the leaning fences.

When he was a child, the family moved from within the city of Taylorville to an old, two-story farmhouse in the country. It stood alone among the fields, isolated and dark against the sky, far removed from the homes of the nearest neighbors. Such houses still stand today; I’ve seen hundreds of them, lonely patches of human habitation amid the endless acres of whispering grain.

We’re talking about the end of the 1930s. This was an era when electricity was still somewhat tenuous in the countryside, and when they moved in, the power had either not yet been hooked up or not yet turned on. The family used oil-burning lamps for the first stretch of nights in the house. During the sunny Illinois day, they hauled in loads of furniture, clothes, and cookware, placing things as best they could in the rooms where it all belonged.

In the kitchen, they discovered a huge, heavy wooden cupboard that had come with the house, left by the previous owners. It towered from floor almost to ceiling in one corner. My grandma was delighted by its charm and solidity, and she gratefully loaded it up with her best plates and cups to get them out of harm’s way. The rest of the dishes would require more careful sorting. For the time being, they were left in some big metal washtubs set on the table . . . and perhaps in some boxes on the counters, on the floor.

Exhausted by the day of hard work, the family retired to the living room, carrying their flickering lamps. The adults sank into chairs and onto the couch, bone-weary. The children played on the floor in the reddish glow. Beyond the little circle of light, the prairie darkness closed in, filling the empty rooms, covering the fields. It was an era such as we can scarce imagine today, in our neon age, when the world is brightly lit 24/7. It was an age of quietness and impenetrable shadow.

Suddenly, to the shock and horror of all, pandemonium erupted in the black kitchen. There came the sound of the tubs sliding from the table, clanging and ringing on the floor — the sound of dishes shattering, silverware bouncing, glass breaking into shards.

The adults sprang to their feet, hearts pounding. Had some animal found its way into the house? Pans crashed; boxes tumbled; the terrible destruction could only be deliberate. Some vandal — a prowler? As the final blow, there came the shuddering impact of the great cupboard toppling onto the table, smashing its own glass doors and the table’s wooden legs, everything collapsing to the floor. Panes and lattices flew apart. Shelves splintered. Grandma’s best dishes — such as they were in that time when the Depression had been deeply felt — were now junk to be swept away. But why? What? Who. . . .?

Summoning their courage, seizing anything that might be wielded as a weapon, the adults raised their lamps and ventured into the kitchen, eyes wide, faces colorless, breath held. I can picture them as they must have approached that kitchen, a row of sheet-white faces peeping around the door frame at various heights.

As the wicks’ flames pushed back the darkness, the kitchen slowly became visible. And there . . . there in the unfamiliar belly of the ancient house . . . nothing was amiss.

The tubs remained on the table, stacked high with plates. The boxes rested on the counter and on the floor, still intact, still packed. In the shadowy corner, the grandfather of cupboards stood unperturbed, the glass doors secured, the rows of dishes guarded within. No damage at all had been done. There were no TVs, no radios blaring; no other houses nearby, from which a sound might have emerged. Nothing. Just a kitchen in a worn, brooding farmhouse, steeped in silence and memory. If it was a hallucination, then the entire household had the same one at the same time.

It was the first strange incident in the old house, but certainly not the last.

So Happy Hallowe’en to all! If anyone has a ghost story (or any creepy story) to tell us — whether it be true or not — please do so!

And here’s an idea: why doesn’t everyone stop by here on or around Hallowe’en night and tell us how you spent the evening — did you do anything seasonal? I’ll be away that night . . . the blog will be empty, and full of echoes. But that shouldn’t discourage you, on this night of all nights!

Masquerade

October 17, 2009

I must have been very young, because I was sleeping in the small, pale-purple bedroom, the dimmest room of our dark, light-eating house. That was the first room I slept in as a baby, when my bed still had fence railings on the sides. It lies at the heart of the ancient core of our house, one of the original rooms, occupied by generations of people who were not us. (It’s now my storage room, sealed away from the light behind doors with deadbolt locks, piled high with cases of my moldering books, the only room in which no human foot now walks.) When I was little, I remember calling it “the Spook Room” — for no real reason, except that it was so old and dark and quiet. I don’t think it was haunted, but if any room in our house should be, that’s the one I’d pick. The only negative memories I have of that room are nightmares of gorillas coming from the woods and standing over me, their sagittal crests brushing the ceiling.

Anyway, on the evening in question, I must have been taking a nap there. I remember my mom waking me up and saying, “There’s someone here to see you.” I opened my eyes, and standing beside my bed was the devil.

Yes, the devil: all red, with horns and a tail, a pitchfork, and a glittering, sequined red mask (at least that’s the way I remember it). A part of my mind screamed in horror at the notion that my mom was cheerfully handing me over to the devil.

But within a few seconds, I realized that the arch-fiend was my nextdoor neighbor Chris, wearing a Hallowe’en costume. (Chris, do you remember that?) That, I believe, is my earliest Hallowe’en memory.

We humans have always had a thing for disguising ourselves — for wearing clothing, paint, and/or masks that make us seem to be what we’re not — and we do it for all sorts of reasons. Probably the most ancient has to do with religious beliefs and practices. Shamans wore masks and became something more than the mysterious wise ones who lived in the caves up the slope. Dancers wore feathers and grasses and painted masks, and metamorphoses occurred as gods and spirits moved about the fires.

In European werewolf legends, the transformation from man to beast was often accomplished by a person putting on a wolf skin — donning the skin of a wolf and becoming a wolf. Or the strange, beautiful brides of fishermen would one day throw seal skins about their shoulders and return to their parents’ kingdoms under the sea.

We’ve talked before on this blog of Max in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. (It’s recently been made into a movie, I understand.) The book is built upon the fact that Max puts on his wolf suit and acts like a Wild Thing — to the disgruntlement of his mother — and thus begins his adventure into the realm of the Wild Things. It is a costume that launches it all.

I was thinking of the uses of costumes in works of literature and film. . . . The first that comes to mind, of course, is the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, in which Jem and Scout are dressed as agricultural products and begin a harrowing journey through a dark and deadly wood. And I thought of the movie A Perfect World, starring Kevin Costner, in which an armed fugitive (Costner) takes a young boy hostage, and the two develop an unlikely friendship during their few days on the run, when they journey through the borders of “a perfect world” — a fantastic journey enhanced by the boy (Philip)’s stealing of a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume, which he wears constantly. The costume sets him free, in a way: Philip, like Max, becomes something he wants to be; he enters a realm of experience beyond the usual.

When I was very young, I remember coming home with my parents late on a dark, windy night. For some reason, the talk turned to “burglars” who might be hiding in the trees. I couldn’t rest until I’d checked out all our trees with a flashlight. To enable myself to do this, I put on what I called my “Willer-de-Woost” costume. (I think the name came from the Uncle Remus/Br’er Rabbit stories — that was what those characters called a will-o’-the-wisp.) My Willer-de-Woost costume involved a silver hardhat, goggles, and heavy gauntlets, which made manipulating the flashlight very difficult. (The goggles were tinted and made seeing difficult, especially at night. I guess the hardhat didn’t hinder me much.) My dad forever after claimed I said, “If there are burglars, I’ll scare the h*ll out of ’em!” — but I don’t remember saying that. But I do remember that the costume gave me the courage to prowl all through our dark, windy yard, shining my light up into every tree. I was more powerful than my ordinary self: I was the Willer-de-Woost!

Do you remember the excitement of Hallowe’en costumes? I remember having that electric, jittery thrill in my stomach when I contemplated how cool it was going to be to wear my costume. (The actual experience of wearing the costume was almost always sweaty, confining, awkward, and uncomfortable; but that was all forgotten well before the next year rolled around.) Mom laughed in later years regarding how, at my insistence, we always had to start on Hallowe’en in the middle of the summer — thinking of ideas, planning just how we were going to engineer the costume, and visiting junk shops and second-hand clothing stores, scouting for materials.

I won’t bore you with the details, but here’s a list of all my costumes that I can remember (I’m probably leaving some out):

ape soldier (from The Planet of the Apes)

Cornelius (ditto)

Sinbad (the sailor, not. . . .)

a dragon (My mom was a knight, fighting me — a giant knight and a little green dragon.)

the shark from Jaws (My neighbor Randy was Brody, wearing a sandwich-board Orca boat.)

Gandalf

a gorilla

a Skull-Bearer (from The Sword of Shannara)

C-3PO

(and as an adult, after coming to Japan) Eliot Ness, a native American, a scarecrow, a silver man, a hideous bird-creature, the Terminator, Mr. Spock, and Loft [a character of mine from a work in progress]

But I think my very best costume when I was a kid was an amazing Three-Legged Man. We had an odd, jointed stick lying around our house. I suppose it was originally something a tailor would use, because it was the length of a (smallish) human leg, with a rectangular “foot” board attached at the bottom. This stick had a perfect, functional knee-joint in the middle. I got two identical pairs of pants and put one on normally. Then I put my right leg into the left leg of the other pair, so that I had a spare, empty pants-leg dangling at my right side. Into this leg we inserted the stick and padded it, so that the pants were filled out, and I found three ambiguous shoes to put on my three feet. I kept my right arm inside my shirt and down along my side to hold onto the top end of the fake leg. Then we padded out the right arm of my shirt, and I had gloves on my real hand and the fake hand. I wore a rain poncho that hung down to just above my knees, so no one could see what was happening with the waists of the pants. Then I learned to walk convincingly, putting my middle leg forward, then bringing my two outer legs forward for the next step, and so on. The effect was quite unsettling. People stared long and hard, trying to figure out which leg was the fake.

So . . . I guess there are two possible springboards for discussion:

1.) Are there other uses of costumes in books, movies, or stories that we should talk about? Why are those uses memorable and effective?

2.) Do you have any costume stories? Something you wore, perhaps, or something you helped design for your kids? Did it work? Was it a disaster?

Or anything else on the topic of costumes is quite welcome. Ooh, here’s one: what’s the scariest mask you’ve ever seen?

Meanwhile, let’s not yet abandon last week’s post! It’s still wide open — let’s keep using those great lines in scary paragraphs or scenes! And thank you to everyone who has written in!

Let’s close out with a few lines from my story “The Bone Man” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2007):

“Black bushes, spreading trees — there seemed more of them at night, with glowing plastic lanterns strung among the last brittle leaves: lanterns in the shapes of jack-o’-lanterns, white ghosts, green-faced witches. (Whoever came up with the idea that a witch should have a green face?) It was dark ahead of him, though fire still hung in the vanished sun’s wake. Slowly the sky’s lavender changed to a deep blue, and stars glittered.

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 that took pictures and movies; it seemed more the era when cars had lock-levers like golf tees, phones had round dials, and TVs were controlled by big, stubborn knobs on the front. Conlin passed over sidewalks that veered to accommodate trees, some concrete sections pushed up into humps by the roots. Trees owned these prairie towns, he mused: trees’ crowns were crossbeams above; their roots shot far into the earth and spread beyond the last houses; their trunks were spikes that held the community to the land.

. . .

Then, with a sound like an approaching stampede, costumed children exploded onto the scene.”

October Stories

October 10, 2009

000_0597BThis entry will, I hope, be more comment than posting. First, just to set the mood, here’s an excerpt from my story “Uther.” This “Fred” character isn’t me: he just happens to have the same name.

Fred checked his jeans pocket for his key, then quietly exited by the back door and locked it. He threaded among the leaning rakes, mower belts, oily rags, and generator parts. The sagging porch groaned under his added weight. Someday soon, all this junk was going to crash into the crawlspace below.

The leaves were mostly down now. Fred’s high-topped sneakers sank ankle-deep in their crackly carpet. The moon rode high and round through the limbs, but the night wasn’t as clear as he’d thought. Piles of cloud slithered like dirty snow in a stream, and a clammy breeze rustled the cornstalks his father had lashed to the porch posts for Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving. There was no art to the decoration: just a pickup load of dead stalks bound thickly to every support, like phase one of building a pyre.

[In this story, Fred is an inventor. He remembers a night from the previous August, and goosebumps break out on his arms.]

Fred was playing then with a gadget he’d impishly called “night vision goggles” — not because they helped you see at night, but because their prisms warped ambient light, helping you see night visions. The effects were wild and disturbing: objects had colored auras, tree branches seemed to reach toward you, and shadowy figures hovered everywhere, the mirages and residues of things beyond the lenses’ peripheries.

The goggles were downright creepy. It hadn’t been too smart to wear them into the hilltop cemetery. As Fred had scanned the tombstones, watching the marble angels breathe, their robes seem to flutter — watching the ground ripple, as if the dead were trying to claw their way up — he’d glimpsed two figures.

[Later in the story, Fred visits one of his favorite haunts, where he often gathers parts for his inventions: the town junkyard.]

Still, the illumination of the distant town brought comfort: the winking red light on the radio spire, the water tower like a Wellsian Martian war machine, the glowing windows of the five-story St. Francis Hospital. Human habitation, he mused. A little circle of warmth around the campfire, and beyond our cave, the bottomless night.

He followed the road toward the grain elevator, but turned off on the gravel lane leading toward Huggins’ Salvage. This track, which angled through an apple orchard on the town’s outskirts, was deeply rutted from the passage of heavy trucks, the caravans of exotic plunder — dead freezers, discarded furnaces, the obsolete and unwanted.

A chain-link fence and gate barred the main approach, but they were only a facade. The original Huggins had been dead for a decade, and his sons had done away with the fences on the sides and back of the salvage yard. Trucks could drive freely among the corrugated buildings now, and off to where the compound dissolved into mounds and canyons of trash brought with no expectation of payment.

The apple harvest had just ended, the ground still littered with the bird-pecked, the worm-eaten, the withered rejects. Fred trudged beneath the low, tangled limbs that drooped over the fence on his left, branches groping down toward the wrecked cars. The pulpy, overripe smell was strong here, the shadows deep; even leafless, the trees formed an interwoven roof.

At the snap of a twig, he spun.

[And later. . . .]

His heart leaped. Someone stood watching him, utterly motionless, a bald head and shoulders outlined between two cars.

Fred backed up, ready to run, hunching for a clearer view. The person made no move and seemed not even to breathe, as calm as. . . .

A mannequin. Fred slumped against a burned-out Chevy, knees going weak in his relief. He’d seen the dummy before, a thing with no arms, no face, and only a stick for a lower body. He was just too jumpy tonight.

Nor did it help that he was within sight of a feature he called the Gallows. It loomed to his right, a locust tree that had pushed up through a stack of chemical drums, a plastic-sheathed clothesline wire ingrown into one outstretched limb, swinging in the wind. He always looked to see if anyone had looped the wire into a noose.

Okay, let’s leave Fred there, because the situation is about to get very grim indeed.

And let’s go to the wonderful first lines that the readers of this blog have suggested so far! These come from comments to the posting two back from this one, called “Boo.” Here they are:

1.) The tree was weird.

2.) There shouldn’t have been a crack in the sidewalk. It hadn’t been there yesterday. The odd squishing sounds I had heard during the night came back to me as I leaned in for a closer look.

3.) It was a night when the white moon sucked all color from the world; a haunting melody was riding the breeze, but nobody in the car seemed to hear it but me.

[Those first three were submitted by SwordLily.]

4.) At the first exhibit at the grade school haunted house, Billy knew his hand was dunked into a plate of cold spaghetti, and not “body parts,” as his cousin claimed, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that it seemed as though some of the strands were warmer than others, and had tightened slightly around his fingers.

[That was from Marquee Movies.]

5.) It was a dark and stormy night.

[From Jedibabe and Daylily.]

6.) No one walked past this particular house even in daylight but I knew someone lived there, though I’d never seen them.

7.) It wasn’t dark yet; the sky was gray and looked like static as the wind screamed past us, rattling the old boards at the end of the street.

[Those two are from Shieldmaiden.]

8.) I watched, frozen in silence, as a deformed black shadow inched its way up the street . . . but where, pray tell, was its body?

9.) Two large red eyes, missing their pupils, stared at the boy, a mouth with multitudes of reddish teeth slowly materializing in the darkness.

10.) The moon twisted and moved, forming impossible shapes in the cold night; something black, with small beady eyes, sat atop it.

11.) She screamed as something rose out of the black water, making as if to grab her with its white bony hands.

[These latest four are from Kyran.]

Thank you to all contributors so far! (You can still contribute entries; I’d suggest leaving them as comments on this post, so we can find them easily.)

The next step: anyone who wants to can choose one of these eleven beginnings and use it to start a paragraph (or a few paragraphs). Write the paragraph(s) as a comment on this entry. You don’t have to tell the entire story of what’s going on or bring it to any kind of conclusion: just add to the scene, perhaps deepen the mystery, increase the weirdness — and above all, have fun! Let’s not any of us feel that we “can’t write” well enough to try this — remember, the bumblebee “can’t fly,” either!

It’s okay to reuse certain ones if someone takes the one you wanted. That’s the great thing about electronic text: there’s enough of it to go around. But ideally, let’s try to use them all before we’re done!

Talk to you soon!

Boo

October 2, 2009

“It was getting very late when we came to a certain house that was not at all like the others on its block.”

–from “Boo,” by Richard Laymon

 

October is in the chair, as Neil Gaiman might say — and has said! — check out his story “October Is In the Chair” in his collection Fragile Things. But seriously, it’s October now. Much as I love the summer, much as I believe the hot months are the real incubator of the imagination, and that they are the closest months we get to Paradise in this life . . . I have to admit that October is the single most focused imaginative month. After we’ve charged far afield and frolicked and absorbed as much sun as we could through the warm months, it’s sober October that sits us down before the fire and makes us gaze into the darkness of things. We catch our breath, and we shiver. We remember how good it is to be scared by a scary tale — so much better than being scared in real life! In stories, we just can’t resist seeking what’s out there — what’s down there. What might be coming, even now.

I have fond memories of growing up with tales of weirdness and fear. First, Andersen’s fairy tales: whenever I was sick as a kid, lying on the blue velvet sofa, shivering and sweating and unable to hold liquids down, Mom would get out the little blue hardback collection of Andersen and read to me. Strange and scary things happened in those stories. There were witches and magic, dogs with eyes as big as saucers, and my experience of them came with the mingling of physical discomfort, delirium, and the wonderful glow of love, care, security, and relief. My mom was there, taking my temperature and bringing me Seven-Up. And that, I believe, is fundamental to my perspective on horror. If I didn’t have a core belief that things will be all right, I’d have no reason to enjoy horror.

Bloodcurdling LovecraftThen there’s H.P. Lovecraft. I think I’ve mentioned before how I used to see the covers of his books on the racks at our family bookstore, and they looked like the perfect books to me as a nine- or ten-year-old boy: hideous monsters, tentacles, crumbling stonework, etc. Oh, how I wish I had an image here of the very first cover that drew me to Lovecraft! I’m pretty sure it was a collection called The Dunwich Horror and Others. At any rate, the edition you read doesn’t matter too much, as long as it’s Lovecraft, and as long as you read enough stories to get a feel for him. I particularly recommend The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited and with an introduction by S.T. Joshi. There’s also a More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, annotated by S.T. Joshi and Peter Cannon. Although I’m talking October books here, my childhood recollections of Lovecraft are of the dusty back room of our bookstore, reading and drinking Pepsi with my knees propped up against the edge of the battered desk . . . and of reading him outdoors at Annotated H.P. Lovecrafthome on hot, hot summer days — heat and light all around me, heat waves shimmering in the fields, leaves whispering in the breeze — and in the pages, coldness and subterranean darkness, moldering crypts, secret rooms, sagging gambrel roofs in ancient New England towns. . . .

Lovecraft is one writer I enjoyed as a kid and kept right on reading as I grew up. Back in about 1995, I lived and taught in the town of Shirone, but I also had a couple classes once a week in Sanjo. To get there, I took a bus to a tiny train station in the middle of nowhere (a town/station called Yashiroda), where sometimes I had to wait well over an hour for a train to come along. I would sit there at the station reading H.P. Lovecraft — outdoors in the summer; in the winter, cozied up to the kerosene stove inside.

In gradeschool we used to have Book Fairs in the “All-Purpose Room” — a big gray chamber at the heart of the building where lunch tables and seats folded down out of the walls, then retracted again when it was time for an all-school assembly, band practice, a play, a film, or p.e. class. Such Fairs were a delight: there were tables stacked with books, and you could browse among them and buy them for ridiculously low prices like five cents or ten cents. (At least that’s how I remember it now — any North School kids out there want to correct me?) It was at one such Book Fair that I bought a morbidly grim volume called The Creature Reader. And one of the stories in it was “Wendigo’s Child,” by Thomas Monteleone. It was about a boy in Arizona who rides his bicycle to a nearby archaeological dig, hoping to find cool artifacts, and he finds a little, leathery, wizened mummy that seems half human baby and half bird. Ill-advisedly, he takes the thing home and hides it in his basement, finding out along the way from a native American friend (to whom he doesn’t show the mummy) that such creatures were guardians of the burial grounds. Yes — what you’re imagining — that’s what happens in the story. The book gave me nightmares for months afterward. I loved it!

There was also a story in that book called “Godosh” [the author escapes me], about a sleeping giant inside a mountain who wakes up and wreaks a terrible vengeance when heartless land developers come to bulldoze the forest. Very satisfying to a pre-teen nature lover’s sensibilities!

I don’t know what ever happened to my copy of that book. I’m one who takes very good care of books, and I rarely lose track of ones I like. But the fate of that one is a true mystery. It vanished without a trace at some point.

There was a book called Shudders on the shelf in my bedroom for years and years. (When I visited my Cousin Phil’s parents back in 2006, I noticed a copy also shelved with his old books, which didn’t surprise me. We tend to gravitate toward many of the same books, even if they’re really obscure.) I honestly don’t know whether it’s a good collection or not, because I never got past the first story: “Sweets to the Sweet,” by a young Robert Bloch. That story scared me so badly as a kid that I stopped reading, put the book back into the bookcase, and didn’t touch it for what I think was a couple years. When I opened it again and read the Bloch story, it scared me again and I put it back on the shelf. I’d say there’s a fairly good chance that if I found the book again today, I still wouldn’t make it past the Bloch story.

As a teenager, I got into much of the earlier work of Stephen King. I devoured The Shining, I loved his short stories in Night Shift, and ‘Salem’s Lot is still one of my favorites of his — and one of the best vampire books around. But my favorite Stephen King is the novel It. (The novel, I stress: don’t even bring up the visual dramatization of it!) I read It at a major transition time in my life: I started it in the early summer of 1988, my final year in the States; I finished it in Tokyo in the winter of 1988-9. So my memories of it are bound up with both Illinois and Japan, and that time of moving to a new phase of life. It — to my thinking, this is the very best of Stephen King. All the pulse-racing, skin-crawling horror is there, but it’s tempered by an achingly beautiful nostalgia for childhood in a vanished era and a portrait of lifelong friendships — friends who will stick with each other though their lives hang in the balance. It’s a wonderful book.

Best Ghost Stories of Algernon BlackwoodDuring one of my first few summers in Japan, I found my way to the stories of Algernon Blackwood. In those years of my early twenties — a searching, angry, passionate, lonely, joyous, discovering time — I used to sit astride the seat of my parked bicycle on some forest trail near the sea, and in the green glow of filtered light, I’d read books. That’s where I read Blackwood’s “The Willows,” one of the scariest stories of all time. It was at around this time — 1990 or 1991 — that I had a very close brush with publication. A now-defunct small-press magazine titled Midnight Zoo expressed strong interest in my story “Iowa Mud,” but asked for revisions. I immediately subscribed to the magazine, revised the story, and sent it back. As I recall, they liked it still more, but wanted more revisions. So I obliged them. I loved reading the magazine — it was well put together, and the stories were right up my alley. They accepted the story, but before it saw print, they got into financial problems, as small-press magazines almost inevitably do. They asked if they could pay me in contributor copies instead of money, and I said sure. Then they ceased publication and disappeared altogether, and I never heard from them again. The story never made it into print. (Which may be a good thing.) [Oh — the point of telling about this near-publication experience {NPE} is that I sat around in that same pine forest revising “Iowa Mud,” so my memories of that time are all interwoven — my story, Blackwood, and Ambrose Bierce.]

About Blackwood: in the same collection, he has a story called “The Other Wing” which I always thought completely surpasses any notion of “genre.” It ought to be anthologized in college freshman literature survey textbooks, along with Lovecraft’s “The Strange High House in the Mist.”

The years have gone by, and I’ve always been on the lookout for good, scary tales. I know some people just don’t “get” horror, but given the choice between any two stories, I’ll almost always take the frightening one. (Like I said a few posts back: our oldest fully-English piece of literature is the story of a hero battling monsters — it’s in our blood.)

October Dreams coverMy first novel Dragonfly was/is an ode to Hallowe’en. And speaking of that holiday: THE BOOK to read in this season (while you’re taking breaks from Dragonfly) is an anthology entitled October Dreams, edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish. What makes this one so wonderful is that it isn’t just a compilation of great Hallowe’en stories by a whole host of writers, some extremely famous, some virtually unknown — but it also includes, between the stories, mini-essays by many of the writers on actual memories of Hallowe’ens in their lives. If you read it, you may even decide you like the essays best of all. In fact, I’d love to see a whole book dedicated to that. Someone should solicit Hallowe’en memories from about fifty speculative fiction writers, ranging from the bestsellers to those in the small press — wouldn’t that be excellent? Anyway, in that book is my favorite short Hallowe’en story ever: “Boo,” by Richard Laymon. I won’t spoil it by giving away particulars, but I will say that this story captures pretty much everything I love about Hallowe’en. It’s beautiful and nostalgic; in places it makes you laugh out loud — partly at what’s happening, and partly at your own memories it evokes — it makes you ache with longing, not only for the Hallowe’ens of your youth, but for childhood itself — and, like any proper All Hallows tale, it packs a deeply disturbing wallop. “Boo,” by Richard Laymon — I dare you to find better! (And if you find better, please please pleeeease tell us about it here!)

Finally, two movies I’ve seen recently, which represent a tip of the hatDog Soldiers to those two mighty pillars of the horror genre, the vampire and the werewolf. . . . Several friends had been recommending to me the film Dog Soldiers (2001). It is a genuinely creepy and entertaining story, and it’s the sort that I think I may like better on subsequent viewings. (To be 100% honest, after the way so many trusted friends raved about it, I was a tiny bit disappointed on my first watching; it’s a good film, but it had a lot of hype to live up to. But I liked it enough that I’m talking about it here, aren’t I?) A group of soldiers on training maneuvers in the Scottish highlands end up trapped in an isolated farmhouse, desperately trying to hold off the werewolves until dawn. What I found at once surprising — and ultimately unsettling — about this movie was the lack of movement on the part of the werewolves. I believe (don’t quote me on this; I could be wrong) that they were depicted by using people in costumes — people in unnatural postures, on stilts, perhaps; and given all that, the actors actually had very limited mobility. There’s almost no lunging or pouncing. What we have are instantaneous glimpses of nearly motionless werewolves — monsters frozen in terrifying silhouettes, looming in the shadows. And whether intentionally or not, this taps right into our childhood fantasies and nightmares. Think about it: as kids, the imagined images that scared us the most weren’t lunging enemies — they were the things that lurked . . . that watched us from the shadows . . . that towered over our beds. Capitalizing on that fear, Dog Soldiers delivers quite a bite!

Let the Right One InBut far and away the best movie I saw this summer, irrespective of genre, was the vampire film Let the Right One In. It’s a Swedish film, so you have the option of watching it either in Swedish, with English subtitles, or dubbed into English. So far I’ve watched it once each way, and there are things I like better about each version. It’s dark, haunting, beautiful, sad, and it uses the canon of vampire mythos to help us ask some profound questions. Some critics call it a “fairy tale.” Perhaps. Again — without giving too much away — it’s the story of the bonding and love between two lonely children — one living, one a vampire. It’s skillful and subtle, and it’s so thought-provoking that some of us discussed it for weeks after I saw it.

All right: that should give you puh-lenty of scary stories to chew on as we go into October (and it’s only the second day!). My plea for reader participation this week offers you two options. (Heh, heh — I hope this one fares better than my mythology quest, which went over like a lead balloon!) The first is obvious: tell us about great scary stories you’ve run into. What are your favorites? Under what circumstances did you experience them? How can we find them?

The second, if we can get a little creative, is this: we’re just now starting October. . . . If we act now, we can set up next week’s post. Use your imagination and come up with a sentence that suggests a spooky paragraph. Give us the first line. Evoke possibility. You don’t have to tell everything: the challenge is to suggest, to set questions exploding in the reader’s mind. Look back up to the very top of this post: that would be a perfect example. What makes that house different from all the others on the block? Surely you can think of one provocative sentence. If you devote some time to it, you’ll probably come up with five or ten set-up lines. You will probably have a hard time shutting yourself off. One of my own examples (which I’m probably misquoting) is the first sentence of my story “Shadowbender”: “Aunt Estelle wasn’t so bad; it was her house that bothered Shan.”

I’m inviting you to post a line — a sentence — that may yield a good, scary paragraph. Next week I hope to line up all these sentences and let readers choose one and try writing the paragraph it suggests.

As always, please remember that some younger people are reading the blog, too.

Meanwhile, happy October!

A Writer’s Life in October

October 25, 2008

Such busy, busy days and nights, and so much happening! It’s been one of the best Octobers I can remember in quite awhile. For the most part, the weather has been gloriously warm and sunny, and I’ve spent as much time outdoors as possible. (The sun is so rare in Niigata that when it comes out, you drop everything and run outside in full absorption mode.)

Seriously, where to begin? First, the Fan Art is beginning to roll on Cricket‘s website, and they’ve got the first three pictures up of “The Star Shard” done by young readers. (www.cricketmagkids.com) I can’t describe the feeling of seeing artwork drawn for a story that entered the world through my mind and fingers. It’s humbling . . . it’s moving . . . it’s awesome . . . it’s — well, indescribable! Actually, it’s the second time I’ve had this rare joy. The first was years ago, when a teacher friend cajoled his students into drawing various villains from Dragonfly. I still treasure those. When kids draw the Harvest Moon heavies, they’re terrifying!

Second, just today, a friend passed along to me a review of Dragonfly written by a friend of hers on LiveJournal. (Ooh, am I allowed to say that on WordPress?) It’s truly uplifting to know that someone somewhere curled up with my old book and spent the day riveted. That’s the wonder of art. That poor book has been wandering around out in the world for close to a decade now — knocked around, remaindered, pulped, offered for sale on Amazon for a penny. . . . But it still connects with readers now and then. It still offers a world to escape into. This reviewer gave it an “A+.” She writes:

“Today was a good day. I spent it in bed under my pink polka-dot blanket reading page after page of Dragonfly until I could read no more and it was finished. /…/ I found it utterly fantastic. /…/ Frederic S. Durbin creates an entire world in only 350 pages [sounds like the paperback], and I would have to say that the world he creates is one of the biggest, most creative worlds I have ever ventured to by way of reading. /…/ Throughout the end chapters of this book I found my eyes welling with tears. I honestly did not know how this book would end up until the very last battle, and even then I had my doubts; but I will leave you to find out which side prevails.

“I think that everyone that enjoys embracing the dark side of life or ever wonders what hides in the shadows of a dark room will enjoy this book because it acknowledges our worst fears. I also think that anyone that enjoys female leads will find entertainment in this novel. Dragonfly is a strong and witty little girl wise beyond her years.”

Soli Deo gloria! And thank you, o thou friend-of-a-friend!

So, I’m about to head to Calgary for this year’s World Fantasy Convention. I’m really excited about that, as you can imagine! I’m scheduled to do a 30-minute reading again this year. Last time, I opted for three shorter selections to fill the half-hour, going for variety. This time, for the sake of experimentation, I’m planning to use the whole time to deliver one unified whole — namely, the Brigit and Phocion section from “Seawall,” the last novelette in Agondria. I chose that one because it’s an encapsulated, standalone tale, and because I think it’s some of the best writing in that book. (It gives me a little chance to act, too! Oh, the drama! “Alas, poor Yorick!”)

At the Convention, I’m also planning to have lunch with my agent on Friday. It will actually be our first face-to-face meeting. He is truly worth his weight in gold and then some — he’s working so hard to get my novel-length version of “The Star Shard” sold to the best possible publishing house. (I’m now thinking of calling that novel The Star Shard. Isn’t that brilliant and innovative? Maybe some fans of the story will notice a connection between the titles!)

While I’m dropping phrases like “my agent” and sounding all like a hoity-toity writer, I’ve got to tell you about a day I spent recently. The theme of this posting is a writer’s life in October, and this day in question, my major activities really sound like I’m living the writing life — like a page from the G.Q. of Writers, if such a magazine existed. Heh, heh — read on:

First (this is all one day, mind you), I made notes on a bundle of my poems from my old chapbook Songs of Summerdark at the request of a colleague at the university. She’s a composer who delights in setting words to music, and she wants to take a whack at some of my poems. So I was going through picking out poems, suggesting instrumentation, and writing notes on what I was trying to capture in the poems and what I thought the instruments and voices should be doing. It will be great fun to see what she comes up with!

Second, I worked on timing my reading for the Convention. The only way to do that is to read it more-or-less aloud from beginning to end and notice how much time elapses. I ended up cutting a bit from the middle.

Third, I put together a promotional package of some things for The Star Shard to deliver to my agent when we meet. I try to keep him supplied with anything and everything that might be useful in selling the book.

Finally, I read and carefully critiqued a novelette for a good friend, which was pure joy, not work.

If that ain’t livin’ the writing life, I don’t know what is! I’m thankful for the chance to be here, to be now, to be doing the things I’m doing. It’s not a matter of course — it’s a matter of grace. I’m thankful for the sunlight this October. I’m thankful for my students . . . for words on paper . . . for imagination and the coming of Hallowe’en . . . for the gift of participation in this incredible, unforeseeable sprawl that is life.

Speaking of Hallowe’en: I’d like to encourage another round of reader participation. Are you all still out there? If so, we can’t let this holiday slip by without a proper celebration — a proper revel in smoky lantern light while shadows caper. Two questions I offer: you can (ideally) answer both — or one. (Answering neither is not an option!)

1. What do you do to celebrate Hallowe’en? If you love the season, what is one thing you do to make it particularly shivery and delightful? Dredge up your dearest All Hallows customs and confess them here! A certain mode of decoration? A way you greet the trick-or-treaters? A book or story you read in October? A traditional jack-o’-lantern face you carve? Anything at all . . . how do you greet the long shadow season?

2. What is your favorite Hallowe’en memory? This is your chance to go into detail on that time you. . . . Or when you made that. . . . Or when. . . . Childhood? The threshold between childhood and adulthood? Later still? What was a particularly memorable Hallowe’en for you?

Okay, I’ll get you started on the memories. One Hallowe’en I’ll never forget was 2005. That was the year my mom unexpectedly passed away on October 18. I flew back to the States to be with Dad and for the funeral and all. On the day of the funeral, the town was breathtakingly gorgeous — trees a miraculous palette of brilliant reds and golds. The procession of cars to the cemetery was the grandest Hallowe’en parade one could hope for — couldn’t have ordered a better day for Mom’s last ride through the town she loved. I saw a whole lot of friends and relatives that I don’t normally see — all very loving and friendly, all gazing into Eternity and aware of the brevity of life, all with an awareness of how much my mom had meant to them. A surreal time, when I’m normally teaching but wasn’t that year.

The town was decked out in Hallowe’en glory: fake tombstones like gray toadstools in yards; chokingly thick webs in trees, covering bushes; scarecrow figures, jack-o’-lanterns, ghoul dummies, witches, oddities, orange lights. . . .

I bought Hallowe’en candy, which yanked a crown off my tooth, and I had to go to the dentist. I bought pumpkins — big, orange pumpkins, so abundant and cheap in Illinois, so rare and expensive in Japan. I carved them, and my dad smiled. He said they looked like a couple, this one male, that one female. I took pictures of them.

I took the jack-o’-lanterns to my aunt’s house, because she has the best location ever for trick-or-treaters — no kidding. She’s right on the main street, in the safest neighborhood in town, where parents trust and everyone is home in well-lighted houses, and kids flock thicker than clouds in August. We set the jack-o’-lanterns on the porch and lit them. We set out my aunt’s Indian mannequins: a man and a woman (though the woman is really a man wearing a wig and a dress — a transvestite Indian). They have feathers and moccasins and fringe, and older kids love them, and middle-kids gaze at them in half-terror, and babies fear them and bawl, but still their moms carry them to the porch to receive their Hallowe’en treats. I am proud of how some kids whisper to each other about my jack-o’-lanterns — “Look at their pumpkins!”

My aunt lets me hand out the candy. We are both still somewhat numb in this world without my mom. My aunt makes popcorn, and we eat it in the brief intervals between visitors. The intervals are brief — we have something like 150 kids the first night and nearly 100 the next. We run out of candy and have to buy more for the second night. My aunt keeps a tally, making a mark on paper for every kid that comes to the door. We laugh in the quiet intervals and talk about how many of the girls seem to be dressed as hookers. There’s vampire hooker, witch hooker, and just plain hooker.

One of the most amazing things is how kids appear out of the night. They materialize from the darkness out by the street. Some cut straight across yards, through the drifts of dry leaves, crunch, crunch, crunch. But some — usually boys — RUN from the curb, a skeleton or a Scream-masked horror swooping toward our porch. Kids stand under the street lights, comparing loot, plotting their courses. Tall witch hats tip and bob as they speak. Many carry little sticks that glow in phosphorescent colors.

I comment on the kids’ costumes (though I avoid saying things like “Oh! A hooker!”). Isn’t it odd how most kids seem oddly disinterested in their costumes? One girl has a knife through her head, with blood trickling down her temples. I say, “Wow. You might want to have that looked at.”

I’m wearing a flannel shirt. For some reason, that sticks in my mind — that shirt, in that surreal October of grief and the Otherworld. Candy, candles, trick-or-treaters. Dragonfly hit the mass market that year; it’s in stores, in Barnes & Noble, in Waldenbooks — for a few brief months. I’m making it as a writer. I sit in a rocking chair opposite the door. I make the decisions about how much candy to put into each bag. My aunt sits off to the side, making her tally marks. She can see the kids through the plateglass window.

Toward the end of the evening, when the visitors trail off, and we’re eating the unpopped kernels that can break your teeth if you’re not careful, my aunt wants to call it quits. But I insist on staying open for business until the end of the time the city allows. I’m so low on candy that I can only put two or three pieces of boring stuff into each bag. But I want to stay as long as I can in my flannel shirt, up and down from my rocking chair, watching the dark, listening for the whisper and giggle of stragglers. A few bigger kids come, kids too old to be trick-or-treating — but, like me, clinging to this night.

This night. Hallowe’en. This year, this 2005, I’m  halfway through writing “The Bone Man.” Mom passed away during the restaurant scene, and I got a phonecall in Japan from the coroner, because no one else in my family could make the international phone number work. “The Bone Man” will go on to receive honors — publication in Fantasy & Science Fiction [Dec. 2007], translation into Russian, anthologization in Year’s Best Horror, honorable mentions from Dozois as a science-fiction tale and from Datlow as a fantasy/horror story. It will be on the ballot for Locus and for the International Horror Guild in their last-ever round of awards. It’s on the ballot against a Steven Millhauser story. A couple people nominate it for a Nebula. Wonder and love and family, sadness, childhood, adulthood . . . Japan, the U.S. . . . life, death, loss, success, crisp air, the imagination. . . . Everything flows together. The world turns toward winter, but on these nights, we’re linked to the earliest times, the beginnings. We are all storytellers, said Paul Darcy Boles, sitting around the cave of the world. “Why don’t you write a Hallowe’en story?” a friend of mine in Japan suggested at the beginning of that October, when I was feeling down and agonizing over what to write. So I started to write “The Bone Man,” just to distract myself. Just to have fun.

Yeah . . . as wonderful as my childhood Hallowe’ens were, I think 2005 was my Hallowe’en, the one single one I’ll never forget.

* * * * * * * * *

Don’t be overwhelmed — mine was long, but short is great, too! What do you do to celebrate Hallowe’en? What are your Hallowe’en memories? Back me up here! Let’s hear from you! Come running from the dark. I’m waiting!

Howlets Nightly Cry

October 10, 2008

I’m back, and the new school term is underway, and it’s time to give you an update on the writing life in my corner of the world. First of all, if you’ve already read Dragonfly and Something Wicked This Way Comes and the December 2007 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction and nothing else fills the great void in your reading life in October, then this is absolutely the year to scare up a copy of October Dreams, that amazing anthology of Hallowe’en stories edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish. This is a book I take off my shelf every year at the beginning of October. I’ve been reading it in no particular order — it’s a big, thick book, so if you read like I do, it will last you five or six Octobers, at least. Like a well-laden Hallowe’en goodie bag, it’s brimming over with treats of the season — a cornucopia of frightening tales by a huge range of writers, some whose names you know well, some whom you’re probably hearing of for the first time. Almost better than the stories themselves are the “Favorite Hallowe’en Memories” interspersed. When I finish reading something in the book, I make a tiny X in pencil at the top of the section. It will probably take me another year or two to get through everything, and by then, I will have forgotten enough that I can start all over again. By FAR the best story in the book — among many that are brilliant and delightfully creepy — is Richard Laymon’s “Boo.” It pretty well encapsulates everything there is to love about Hallowe’en: the mystery, the adventure, the chills, and that wistful nostalgia that the holiday forever carries for all of us who are too old to trick-or-treat.

Okay, other news: it’s been a delightful summer of answering the letters from young readers who are enjoying “The Star Shard.” They’ve been writing in steadily to Cricket‘s web site, and I’ve been doing my best to answer. If you’d like to follow the discussion there, stop in at www.cricketmagkids.com/corner/frederic-s-durbin. Cricket has recently invited readers to send in their own illustrations for “The Star Shard,” and the artwork will eventually be displayed on the site. I can’t wait to see what readers will choose to depict and how they’ll go about it!

One especial highlight in the publication run was the cover of Cricket‘s September issue — Emily Fiegenschuh’s illustration (for “The Star Shard”) of Cymbril on the bow of the Thunder Rake! Poster prints of that image are available at www.cricketmag.com/coverprints.htm.

My current writing project is expanding “The Star Shard” into a novel-length book. Through a connection made by my diligent and wonderful agent, an editor at a first-rate publishing house has made me some careful notes on what he’d like to see in such a revision. Every suggestion he’s made is right on the money, so I’m going at it. Please wish me well! I have ideas for what I think will be a five-book series — Lord willing!

Finally, I’m gearing up for Calgary and this year’s World Fantasy Convention at the end of this month. I’m looking forward to seeing how a Canadian WFC will be different from a U.S. one.

Now here are some pictures. This first one is of me and my cousin a few years back — I’m the littler one, with the “What’s out there?” expression.

Then come a couple images from the Dragonfly tour, this time from the U.S. side: the actual alley behind the bank (as featured in the book’s Chapter 1) and the funeral home on which Uncle Henry’s is directly based.

After that, some images of October in Niigata, Japan: the rice fields after harvest, persimmons, the track of the famous shinkansen or bullet train (not an October thing, but included, anyway), a view of the Shinano River (Japan’s longest), and willow leaves — included for the Hallowe’en connection, since in Japan, willows have a strong association with ghosts; they’re the trees under which ghosts often appear.

A warm seasonal “Boo” to all!

Rice field after the harvest.

Rice field after the harvest.

Bullet train tracks
Bullet train tracks

Persimmons
Persimmons

Shinano River
Shinano River

Sea of Japan at Niigata
Sea of Japan at Niigata
Sekiya Canal
Sekiya Canal
The Matsubayashi
The Matsubayashi

DRAGONFLY: The Commentary Track

May 30, 2008

Dragonfly was conceived and written on two continents, on opposite sides of the world. Come along with me on the official fan tour of historic locations relating to the book! What you’re looking at here is one of two “Birthplaces of Dragonfly.” This is the one that’s easier to get to if you live in Japan. This little grove of trees is in front of the Humanities building at Niigata University’s Ikarashi campus. As the story goes, I had come to the university that day with two friends who were attending a special seminar on how to make kimchee. This is so far in the dim past now that I don’t remember why I tagged along, since I had not intended to go to the kimchee session. While my two friends were indoors learning how to bury cabbage and spices with the full intention of digging them up again, I was wandering around in the location you see, and the ideas for the book began to flood over me. It started, as I recall, with the two names Dragonfly and Mothkin. I glimpsed in my head something like a cutaway diagram of cellars or levels descending into the Earth. I knew Dragonfly was a girl who was going to journey down and down into a place that would be peopled with werewolves, vampires, and other Hallowe’en boogey-folk.

An early idea that I later discarded was that Dragonfly would spend much of her life in Harvest Moon —DRAGONFLY was conceived in this evergreen grove near the statue known as VICTORY. that she would live, have a job, marry, and have children there. I imagined her pulling a cart with onions to sell. The phrase “Onion Years” swirled around in my mind. In the finished book, Dragonfly does get into a bit of agricultural commerce with Sylva, but she doesn’t become the mother of a new generation of werewolves. (If they had had a child, what would they have named the little one? Maybe “Glamis” after Grandpa Cawdor, in keeping with the Macbeth theme? Or perhaps it would have been twins, Mac and Beth?)

What follows here are some views of fall in the place I grew up. This is what autumn looked like to me as a child. So this is the other half of the tour: the sights and settings that colored the (overabundant) descriptions in Dragonfly. I loved the fall — not as much as summer, but I loved it — and Hallowe’en was its crowning glory. I’d already be thinking of costumes in July or August. I’d figure out what I wanted to dress up as. It was usually something from whatever book I was reading: a Skull-Bearer from The Sword of Shannara,  Gandalf, C-3PO, the shark from Jaws (those are all real examples). . . . Mom and Dad would lend their grownup engineering expertise. Dad would build things like Skull-Bearer wings, and Mom would open the trove of ancient family clothing and props. She also knew how to shop the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores for excellent costume raw materials–such as the Styrofoam dinosaur head that I wore in one Hallowe’en parade, or the shaggy fur coat that, when snipped and re-stitched in the right places, became a wondrous full-body gorilla suit for my gradeschool-sized body. Dressed as the gorilla, I emerged from the darkness near Memorial School where people were lining up for the annual parade, and I remember some kids reacting with a bit of genuine fear.

What a wonderful holiday! The parade is a long tradition in our hometown, going back well before my time. When I was little, one family heirloom was a hideous rubber crone mask — wrinkled brow, melancholy eyes, cucumberish nose, jutting warty chin, etc. My maternal grandmother used it once to freak out her husband. He was a Taylorville policeman. On the night of the Hallowe’en parade, he was directing traffic at the parade lineup. His wife, my grandma, approached him in full costume, wearing the mask (which apparently he didn’t know about), and proceeded to “get fresh” with him–patting his face, being very clingy, etc. I smile to picture this proper, serious policeman (in the black-and-white photo I’ve seen of him, he wears his uniform, a pair of glasses with tiny round frames, and a Hitler moustache) beginning to squirm as his unknown “assailant” begins to cross the line from holiday merriment into “This-is-most-irregular.”

I could never stop with just one costume for the Hallowe’en season. I’d develop at least two: one for trick-or-treating and one for the school party. (Sometimes there’d be a third for the parade.) Although I knew full well the costumes I’d be making would be cooler than anything “off the rack,” I could never resist ogling the bright, simple suits that a lot of kids bought last-minute at the stores downtown. (People bought things downtown in those days, from the stores all around the town Square. This was long before we had a Wal-Mart.) You know those costumes, I’m sure: the face-masks secured by an elastic string around the head, the garish two-piece attire whose designs and colors don’t even try to simulate what the character is supposed to look like. For example, Frankenstein’s monster–instead of wearing ragged, mismatched, stolen clothing, the dime-store monster wears a shiny yellow shirt with his own menacing portrait on the chest, and scary-letters proclaiming him “FRANKENSTEIN!”

Well, I’d generally beg my mom to buy me one of those. If my cousin was visiting, he’d ask for one, too. Mom never indulged us in this request. She’d say, “No. You don’t want one of those sleazy costumes. We’ll make a better one.” Kids, of course, are always on the lookout for the proper names of things; I latched onto the term “sleazy costumes” and assumed it was the proper name for that type of dime-store costume . . . perhaps even a brand name. My mom often told the story of how my cousin and I ran after her along the bustling sidewalks of our town, both of us wailing, “I WANT A SLEAZY HALLOWE’EN COSTUME!” (We never got them. We ended up with not-at-all-sleazy costumes.)

Anyway, I wrote the first 80 or so pages of Dragonfly in Japan on my Ricoh N-10 word processor, a machine about the size and weight of a microwave oven. Most of the rest, as I recall, was written in Taylorville that summer, some at our dining room table, some at my aunt’s house, and some outdoors on a card table set up just behind “the cave,” the root cellar/storm shelter you see pictured here. (That may have been the year I bought the 75-foot extension cord to enable me to write outdoors. All through my twenties, I loved the idea of writing out in the open air, in the wondrous lights of nature — the golden sunlight, the purple shade, the green glow of leaves.)

 

Here’s the General Education building at Niigata University as it appears today. This is where I do most of my teaching and a fair amount of my writing-related thinking.

Naming (especially in fantasy) is fun. To this day, I’m still struck at odd times with names for Untoward pairs and wish I’d used them in the book. I honestly don’t know why Dragonfly (the character) has that nickname. I liked “Mothkin” because of its suggestion of someone “kin” to the fluttering moths of the summer night, winging out of the black to beat against the screens or cling there. It seemed a good image for a dark, streetwise Agent of the Peaceable Kingdom as Mothkin is. Angels, I thought as a kid, shouldn’t all be dressed in pristine white with never a hair out of place. And in church Christmas plays, they shouldn’t be portrayed by the blonde girl. I always wanted to cast an angel to look more like a veteran prize fighter, more like a pirate. Finally with Mothkin, I got my chance.

“Sam Hain,” of course, is a sort of joke based on “Samhain,” the Celtic Lord of the Dead. (I know that the Celtic name isn’t pronounced like “Sam Hain” looks. But Hain himself wouldn’t be above adopting such a name as a pun of his own, so I think it’s justifiable.)

Uncle Henry was based on a character of the same name, appearance, and profession in my first real short story as a legal-aged writer, a piece called “Maybe Tonight” (which makes a good performance piece to be read aloud on Hallowe’en night). But it later occurred to me that Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz also had an Uncle Henry. I don’t think it was a conscious homage. It’s more a tribute to the first name of one of my two favorite college professors. Uncle Henry’s appearance is based on the psychologist who evaluated me for the Volunteer Youth Ministry program to determine if I was fit for living overseas in a foreign culture.

Sylva’s name, of course, is meant to evoke woodlands and wildness. Eagerly Meagerly — well, my idea there is the juxtaposition of eagerness — to the point of being ravenous and rabid — with meagerness, a state of inadequacy or lack. If you think of a skeletal ghoul tormented by an insatiable hunger, you’ll have pretty much the picture I intended. Mr. Snicker: the double meaning of “laughing” and the onomatopoeic closing of a pair of scissors — he’s “one who snicks.”

“Noyes” is another of my favorite names in the book. It struck me as perfect for a vampire. First, it sounds like “Noise,” and he is a whiny, verbose character. Second, it’s a combination of “No” and “Yes,” which seems right for one who is undead–both dead and yet animate.

The two biggest influences on Dragonfly? I’d say Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn — particularly the part about the Midnight Carnival.

Until next time!