Having the amazing Brian Hodge on the blog for the first time is definitely an honor. Having him write a review of his favorite Halloween story, which is also one of mine… it’s like we’ve known each other forever.
It is inevitable that institutions get watered down by time. Meanings dilute; the reactions they evoke diminish. Solemn rites become superficial pageantry, ever more hollow the further they drift from their original contexts. Given enough familiarity, even villains and monsters evolve into unlikely antiheroes. By now, the only people rooting for the Halloween movies’ Michael Myers to be stopped are those who are bored sick of him.
According to splatterpunk O.G. John Skipp and his early short story “The Spirit of Things,” the problem with Halloween goes back a lot farther in time than its four-decade film franchise, and runs a lot deeper.
To the ancient Celts, the seasonal turning of summer to winter, of old year to new, was a transitional phase that brought a thinning of the veil between our world and everything else on the other side. Spirits, demons, the dead… they could all cross the ephemeral threshold. This is the history that “The Spirit of Things” remembers. This is the reality that, after millennia of eradication and mockery, is reasserting itself with extreme prejudice.
Since it was first published in the mid-1980s, “The Spirit of Things” has remained my favorite Halloween story of all time. Until a couple of moves disappeared my old hardcopies into a boxed storage purgatory from which they’ve yet to be excavated, I read the piece each year like holy canon: first in the December 1986 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine, then in Deadlines, the 1988 novel by Skipp and his then-collaborator Craig Spector. A strange narrative beast, is Dead Lines, at the time described by its authors as a story collection wrapped in a novel about a guy who kills himself because he can’t sell his story collection.
Barely cracking 2300 words, “The Spirit of Things” has the straightforward simplicity of a timeless fable: a single character, a single setting, a single sequence of events that, in real time, would span fifteen minutes, tops. On the scariest night of the year, an armed and desperate blue-collar worker barricades himself in his apartment, listening to the grisly fate of his neighbors and waiting to see what his own will be.
Yet, with this deceptively limited handful of elements, Skipp paints a portrait in miniature of an entire world undergoing breakdown toward a horrifying new normal. To read it is to reposition yourself at the heart of it. It’s not only balding, paunchy Jake Wertzel under siege in his home; it’s you in yours. It’s not just Wertzel finding out how far he’s willing to go when offering sacrifices to petition for his survival; you can’t read this without wondering about your own limits.
The story’s greatest power is in how actively it engages the imagination. Reader participation is mandatory, because while little is actually seen, much is implied and a whole crazy freakin’ lot is heard. As Wertzel’s surroundings periodically erupt with the kinetic mayhem of an Evil Dead film, it’s the chaos of what he can only hear going on all around him — just outside the windows, on the other side of ceilings and walls — that truly brings the terror, forcing you to conjure in your own head what horrors could possibly be making those ghastly sounds… as well as the carnage they’re leaving in their wake. You want to see, but to see will be the end of you.
Because it’s been around more than thirty years, “The Spirit of Things” may require a bit of a hunt to get your hands on one of its various reprintings. But the effort will be of long-term reward: a holiday classic you can revisit on an annual basis, and wonder, “What if, this year…?”
Called “a writer of spectacularly unflinching gifts” by no less than Peter Straub, Brian Hodge is one of those people who always has to be making something. So far, he’s made thirteen novels, over 130 shorter works, five full-length collections, and one soundtrack album.
His most recent works include the novel The Immaculate Void and the collection Skidding Into Oblivion, companion volumes of cosmic horror. His Lovecraftian novella The Same Deep Waters As You is in the early stages of development as a TV series by a London-based production company. More of everything is in the works.
“You wouldn’t think events happening years apart, at points in the solar system hundreds of millions of miles distant, would have anything to do with each other.”
When she was six, Daphne was taken into a neighbor’s toolshed, and came within seconds of never coming out alive. Most of the scars healed. Except for the one that went all the way through.
“You wouldn’t think that the serial murders of children, and the one who got away, would have any connection with the strange fate of one of Jupiter’s moons.”
Two decades later, when Daphne goes missing again, it’s nothing new. As her exes might agree, running is what she does best … so her brother Tanner sets out one more time to find her. Whether in the mountains, or in his own family, search—and—rescue is what he does best.
“But it does. It’s all connected. Everything’s connected.”
Down two different paths, along two different timelines, Daphne and Tanner both find themselves trapped in a savage hunt for the rarest people on earth, by those who would slaughter them on behalf of ravenous entities that lurk outside of time.
“So when things start to unravel, it all starts to unravel.”
But in ominous signs that have traveled light—years to be seen by human eyes, and that plummet from the sky, the ultimate truth is revealed:
There are some things in the cosmos that terrify even the gods.
We each inhabit many worlds, often at the same time. From worlds on the inside, to the world on a cosmic scale. Worlds imposed on us, and worlds of our own making.
In time, though, all worlds will end. Bear witness:
After the death of their grandmother, two cousins return to their family’s rural homestead to find a community rotting from the soul outward, and a secret nobody dreamed their matriarch had been keeping.
The survivors of the 1929 raid on H.P. Lovecraft’s town of Innsmouth hold the key to an anomalous new event in the ocean, if only someone could communicate with them.
The ultimate snow day turns into the ultimate nightmare when it just doesn’t stop.
An extreme metal musician compels his harshest critic to live up to the hyperbole of his trolling.
With the last of a generation of grotesquely selfish city fathers on his deathbed, the residents of the town they doomed exercise their right to self-determination one last time.
As history repeats itself and the world shivers through a volcanic winter, a group gathers around the shore of a mountain lake to once again invoke the magic that created the world’s most famous monster.
With Skidding Into Oblivion, his fifth collection, award-winning author Brian Hodge brings together his most concentrated assortment yet of year’s best picks and awards finalists, with one thing in common:
It’s the end of the world as we know it… and we don’t feel fine at all.