Christmas Takeover 26: Christa Carmen: A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

A Story by Christa Carmen
4,511 words

An eight-foot demon with curving horns and hooves the size of dinner plates clomped down Fair Street to thunderous applause. Following in the creature’s wake were smaller, goatish imps, their muzzles stretched into lecherous sneers, the tips of their teeth tinged red with blood.

Annie Pichler turned to Chiao Chin and made devil horns atop her own head, the tips of her crimson fingernails reflecting the nearby streetlights. “This is nuts,” she shouted over the din. “What enlightened city official thought a Krampus parade was a good idea? The bars are going to be full of assholes in goat masks tonight asking intoxicated women if they’ve been naughty or nice.”

Chiao pursed her lips and shook her head. “Can you stop overanalyzing everything? This is supposed to be fun. At the very least, in no time at all, we can be two of those intoxicated women getting hit on in bars.” She laughed and smacked Annie lightly in the shoulder.

Annie’s expression turned sly. “Why wait?” She fished a flask from the depths of her purse, which she tipped toward Chiao in an understated toast. She took a generous swig, and then another, until Chiao looked nervously to where two on-duty officers stood, watching the parade.

“Maybe because there are signs all over, declaring this a dry event.”

“Booze is a great cure for paranoia,” Annie said, holding the flask out to her friend.

She frowned. “What’s in it?”

“Obstler,” Annie said.

Chiao scrunched up her face.

“Austrian schnapps,” Annie clarified. “My grandmother sends me two bottles a year, one for Christmas, one for my birthday. It doesn’t matter that those two occasions are six days apart, she sends them as reliably as the phases of the moon. Subsequently, each December, the ‘fruit-brandy-from-the-Old-Country’ section of my liquor cabinet undergoes ample restoration.”

A Krampus costume that took two people to man stomped past. Chiao watched with interest, then suppressed a shriek as a demonic elf lunged at her from beside a giant, mutilated teddy bear. The elf cackled and skipped gleefully on his way, rubbing his hands and scanning the crowd for his next unsuspecting victim.

Chiao shuddered and wrapped her arms around her peacoat-clad torso. “Okay, so, Grandma Pichler’s idea of love is to outfit you with Austrian liquor. Still, it’s a Thursday night, and you’re not normally a pregamer, so which is it? Trouble in paradise, or trouble at the Lilith Center?”

Annie pulled a cigarette from the pack in the front pocket of her bag and lit it. She took two long drags before answering, the smoke unfurling from her nostrils like steam from a departing train. “Things with Lionel are fine.” She took another drag. “Great, even. And Lilith Center is good. I acquired several new housing locations, and Lionel said our director’s pleased with the progress I’ve made.”

Chiao watched the parade participants go by another moment then turned to Annie and held out her hand. “Give me some of that,” she said.

Annie raised an eyebrow but handed it to her, amused. Chiao took a tentative swig, then a bolder, longer one, her face contorting at the apricot taste, struggling to get the spirit down. A moment later, she handed the flask to Annie, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

“So, you decided getting drunk now is a good idea after all?” Annie asked with a smirk.

Chiao blinked watering eyes. “More like every time we talk about your job, I’m overcome by an intense urge to consume the nearest alcoholic beverage. I don’t know how you do it. And, no offense, Annie, but I don’t know how you do it. You, of all people. If someone told me, or any of the Alpha Delta Pi sisters back in college, that you’d end up working for an organization that funnels women out of sex trafficking rings and into safe houses across the country, I don’t think any of us would have believed it.”

Annie gave her a stony look. “Shit, Chiao, tell me how you really feel.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the rising blare of demented Christmas music. A maniacally decorated parade float featuring a white-furred, grinning Krampus paused before their section of the crowd. Krampus’ antics were supplemented by an intoxicated Santa Claus dancing wildly and throwing middle fingers at the reindeer flanking the float below.

Chiao refocused her attention on Annie. “I’m not saying we don’t think you’re a good person,” she continued, “I’m just saying… well, I’d have been a hell of a lot less surprised if you’d ended up partner at a big-time firm. You went to the one of the best law schools in the country and graduated summa cum laude, for Christ’s sake. I just hope you didn’t take this job to make Lionel happy. If you guys broke up, would you wake up one morning feeling that your entire career had been derailed?”

Chiao looked like she expected Annie to be further offended by this confession, but Annie merely narrowed her eyes and cocked her head. “Of course, Lionel has something to do with it. I wouldn’t have even known about Lilith Center if we hadn’t started dating. But I’m not doing this work because of him. I’m doing it because I’m good at it. I’m good at juggling the moving parts, at getting the victims out of shitty situations and into new, better ones.”

“Of course, you’re good at it,” Chiao proclaimed, “but you would have been good at anything you tried.” Her features softened. “As long as you’re happy, your friends are happy. Just don’t lose sight of your long-term career goals, that’s all.”

A demonic Nutcracker weaving its way through the crowd snapped the teeth of its wooden mask shut behind Chiao’s ear. Chiao let out a little scream. “Jesus,” she said, moving closer to Annie, keen to change the subject, “they’re really committed to bringing these creepy-ass legends to life.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” Annie said. “They’re the same bozos we see each morning on the subway, but ballsier because they’re in costume.”

Chiao wasn’t convinced. “They’re figures rooted in centuries’-old beliefs. There’s a reason they’ve persisted for so long.” Without warning, she squealed and grabbed Annie’s arm. “Jesus Christ, what the hell are those?”

Annie craned her head, squinting against her mounting drunkenness and the glare of floodlights. When she finally caught a glimpse of the approaching Yuletide creatures, a chill ran up her spine. “I have no idea,” she said tonelessly. “They look like… plague doctors, or something, with masks like the skeletons of birds.” The float inched closer, halting when it drew even with the medical building, the awning of which Annie and Chiao stood beneath.

There were five of them in total, dressed more-or-less the same. They wore long, flowing skirts in a variety of colors, sweaters, and grandmotherly kerchiefs, with strange straw slippers on their feet and mittens covering their hands. The skirts were of the coarsest fabric, and several of them were patched, and the kerchiefs wrapped around their heads draped generously down their backs. But it was the masks that drew Annie’s eye the most, far simpler than any they’d seen, long, white beaks of hoary linen, featureless yet harsh. As the creatures moved about the float, the masks opened and closed like gasping fish, and with each closing of those awful beaks, Annie felt the resulting clap in her bones.

The creatures carried wicker baskets on their backs; from several of these baskets protruded the mangled limbs of dolls. Three of the creatures held grossly oversized tools in their hands, prompting Annie to want to check the side of her flask for the words ‘DRINK ME.’ The tallest, huddled in the front left corner, wore a violet skirt and dishwater-grey sweater. Its slippers were mismatched—one red, one navy—and its kerchief, mustard yellow. It did not menace the crowd with its large, sharp clippers so much as it mimed shearing some unseen thing. Annie was reminded of the glinting clippers her mother had used to trim the hedges, a memory she had not recalled in years.

The second creature handling a tool wore a patchwork skirt of random patterns. Its sweater was mauve with large white buttons and its scarf was vibrant red. This creature’s scarf was tied further back on its head than the others, making it all the more obvious the creature had no facial features of which to speak. It held in its mittened hands a broom made of twigs and swept invisible debris onto the street.

The final creature to wield a weapon—for that’s how Annie had begun to think of the trio’s tools—wore a floral skirt and an olive-green sweater. Its massive wooden scissors slashed at the air like a dangerous bird, and once, the creature turned so quickly, a dangling leg from its basket lodged between the scissors’ blades.

The hollow claps of the masks weren’t the only noises the creatures made. At first, Annie thought she was too far away to make out their words, thought them to be singing or chanting some Christmas carol or poem. But when the din of the crowd ebbed, Annie could discern what it was they said, a single syllable, meaningless—at least to her ears—repetitive, unnerving:

“Ga…Ga… Ga… Ga…,” they intoned, over and over again, not in any sort of pattern or in unison; there was no method to the chant. The creatures croaked their respective ‘Ga’s’ at their own discretion, resulting in an eerie cacophony, an otherworldly chorus.

Annie felt the skin beneath her sweater rise in gooseflesh at the sound. She tipped the flask to her lips but was dismayed to find it empty. “Hey,” she called to Chiao, who’d somehow moved several feet away from her as they’d watched the bird-masked crones. She held the flask upside down and shook it for good measure. “What do you say we get out of here? Lionel’s probably out already, and I’ve seen enough of these stupid costumes.”

Chiao looked about to protest, then shrugged. “Sure, let’s go.”

They moved quickly through the still-rapt crowd and headed down Washington Street, the welcoming glow of the bars ahead like a beacon in the night.


Annie had never been to the Bockshorn prior to getting together with Lionel, but since they’d started dating one year ago, it had quickly become their spot. Granted, it was Lionel’s spot with everyone else he knew as well, so Annie was not surprised, upon entering, to see him surrounded by hangers-on.

“I’ll get us some drinks,” Annie said to Chiao when the other woman pointed toward the restroom. At the bar, she ordered a glass of schnapps—no sense diverging from what worked—and a dry martini for Chiao, then made her way to a table at the other side of the room and waited to catch Lionel’s eye.

When he saw her after a moment’s time, his expression shifted from merriment to fear. A tall blond man strode up and handed Lionel a shot, which he downed without hesitation. “Be right back, Steve,” he said, pushing the blond man aside, “I’ve got to say hello to my girl.”

Annie stood in preparation for his approach, and Lionel kissed her on the cheek. “Where’s Chiao?” he asked, scanning the bar over Annie’s head.

“She’s in the bathroom. We only have a minute.”

Lionel led her past a bank of pool tables at the back, and Annie tried to walk casually, her gaze on the jukebox ahead. When they’d situated themselves as far back in the dark corner as the room would allow, Lionel leaned down and kissed her hard, first with passion, then rather desperately.

Annie allowed the kiss to go on for several moments then pulled away and blotted her lips. “We don’t have time for this. Tell me now, Lionel, what did Jonathan say?”

Lionel’s eyebrows furrowed, clouding his handsome face. “He still thinks it was some sort of unfortunate mix-up, some miscommunication or wires that were crossed. But he’s trying to get the women you sent there returned, and if that happens, we might not be able to cover our tracks.”

Anger rose like a wave in a tempest and Annie scowled and gripped Lionel’s hands. “I don’t understand. The new houses are foolproof. The managers know how to document false intakes. If it was the hotel we sent them to that brought attention to the rerouting, it’s your crisis to fix, not mine.”

“All right, all right, come down, Annie, like I said, for now Jonathan still thinks it was a mistake. To be honest, I’m a bit more worried about the two hundred other women we’ve rerouted than the two in some hotel in Texas.”

Annie was about to respond, about to say she was pretty goddamn certain that their past and present indiscretions were equally vital to keep hidden, when she heard Chiao calling her name.

“Over here,” Annie called, then dug her nails into the palms of Lionel’s hands. “It’s almost New Year’s,” she growled. “Do whatever you have to do to fix this.” Then she spun to face Chiao, straightened the hem of her sweater, and affected a lightheartedness she did not feel.

“Sorry,” she sing-songed. “We were just on our way back over. The drinks are on that table there. I got you the usual, a dry martini, but if you want it drier, I’ll get you some more olive juice.”

“I’m terrible,” Chiao cried, “barging in on your reunion. I’m so sorry, Lionel, what a way to say hello.”

“Hello yourself, Chiao, and you’re quite forgiven.” He put an arm around each woman as they walked to the table Annie had secured. As was always the case, Lionel’s entourage soon flocked to his side. Annie went to work drowning her worries, and found that by her fourth glass of schnapps, she was able to relax, even enjoy herself a little.

“How was the Krampus Crawl?” one of Lionel’s friends asked. Annie thought his name might be Todd. “We wanted to go, but Washington Street was already closed, so we decided to get annihilated instead.”

Annie sipped her drink and smiled a lazy, crooked smile, before remembering the clap of the creatures’ beaks. In her hesitation, Chiao slid forward in her seat and enthusiastically addressed the maybe-Todd. “It was so creepy,” she slurred.

So much for it being a Thursday night. Chiao was as drunk as she was.

“The costumes were insane,” Chiao continued. “Like nothing I’ve ever seen. Furry Krampuses, maniac Santas, Abominable Snowmen, animal-faced demons, and trolls.”

“The worst were the beaked things,” Annie said, before realizing she’d spoken at all. When the collective eye of the group fixed her in its sight, she wished she could take back her words, or better yet, disappear. “I mean, it was stupid, really. Idiot frat boys in costumes. An excuse to get out and about in the dead of December, I guess.”

“The beaked things,” a woman Annie had never seen before said, “were they dressed like old women, featureless, said only, ‘Ga?’ ”

Annie shivered, remembering the giant wooden scissors. “Yes, those were them.” She observed the woman more closely: tall boots, jacket trimmed in fur, long auburn hair and dangling earrings. “You were at the parade as well?”

“No, but I know the creatures of which you speak. My grandmother was from Gastein and when I was a little girl, she’d frighten me and my sister into doing our chores for fear of the Schnabelperchten.”

“Schnabel-what?” Chiao said disbelievingly.

“The Schnabelperchten,” the woman repeated. “Offshoots of the witch goddess Perchta. Perchta, like Krampus, makes her rounds on winter nights to reward and punish accordingly. The Perchten, or, Schnabelperchten, specifically, are a horde of birdlike creatures who enforce Perchta’s interest in tidy housekeeping. They move in groups of four or five, chanting their ‘Ga, Ga, Ga’s.’ Their beaks are inspired by Perchta’s prominent nose and are usually made of linen and twigs.”

“Yes,” Chiao said, her hair falling in front of her face as she nodded, “the noises their beaks made gave me the creeps.” She paused and pushed her hair back, thinking. “What’s with those packs on their backs? And the giant tools?”

The woman’s eyes moved from Chiao to Annie, and Annie couldn’t help feeling as if her gaze lingered too long. “The Schnabelperchten inspect homes for tidiness, though sometimes make ‘accidental’ messes themselves. They sweep and clip and trim and tidy, and the packs on their backs are to remind children that, like Krampus, the Schnabelperchten may abduct those who fail in their duties.

“Worse, however, than the possibility of abduction, the Schnabelperchten are known to employ Perchta’s favorite method of punishment. They use scissors to slit open and gut their victims, while the shears and broom remove ropes of intestines from the open cavity.”

“Jesus,” Lionel said, sounding more disgusted than engrossed. “It’s Christmas, not Halloween. Why would anyone pass along such a horrible legend? Why are you sharing this story at all?”

“Then what?” Chiao asked, morbid curiosity getting the better of her. Lionel shot her a look that went unnoticed.

“They fill the hole with tow and shavings, straw, dirt, pebbles, and any other assorted garbage they can find. Then the whole grisly mess is sewn up with a needle made of iron, and the Schnabelperchten move along to their next house.”

Annie couldn’t listen to this drivel another minute. “I don’t know who the hell you are,” she said, concentrating hard on every word, “but my grandmother was Austrian too. She never filled her grandchildren’s heads with such nonsense. Disembowelment and death because of a dirty house? A little extreme, don’t you think?”

The woman stared as if she could see into Annie’s very soul, and Annie forced herself not to squirm.

“There is more to being dirty than keeping a dirty house,” the woman said. Her voice was matter-of-fact, her eyes, unblinking.

Annie stood and placed a hand on Lionel’s shoulder. “I’m getting a drink. Chiao, Lionel, care to join?”

She stormed from the table without waiting for a response, but halfway to the bar, realized how drunk she really was. Lionel’s detailing of their situation, of the fact that the women in Texas might still be viewed as a mistake, echoed in her mind. She needed to be on her toes tomorrow, attentive and alert. Going into the office dehydrated and fuzzyheaded .

“Another schnapps?” the bartender asked.

“Actually, I’d like to square up.”

As she was paying her tab, Chiao appeared by her side. “Annie, are you okay? That woman was such a weirdo, she just disappeared after you left. I asked Lionel if he knew who she was, and when we looked up, she was gone.”

“She’s as crazy as those bird people chanting ‘Ga’ at the parade. Who gets off on scaring innocent people like that? Anyway, Chiao, I’m heading out. Tell Lionel for me, okay?”

“Tell Lionel what?” Lionel asked, sidling up to Chiao. Annie swallowed a sigh. Lionel would try to escort her home, and she wanted to be alone. “It’s been a long night,” she said with as much finality as she could muster, “I have… a lot to deal with at work tomorrow.”

To her surprise, Lionel nodded. “I understand. Text me when you get up in the morning, okay?”

Annie agreed, kissed him goodbye, and favored Chiao with a quick embrace.

“You sure you don’t want to stay a little longer,” Chiao asked. “We can share an Uber home.” Annie’s phone buzzed in her hand. “Can’t,” she said, and headed for the door, “My Uber’s already here.”

The ride to her apartment was cold but quick, and she tipped the driver accordingly for skimping on the heat. At the door of her apartment, a swish sounded from somewhere behind her on the street, but when Annie spun around, there was nothing but shadows and the first fat drops of rain. She turned her key in the lock and pushed her way inside, wanting nothing more than to wash her face and slip between the sheets.

She’d changed into sweats and, with a water bottle in each hand, was preparing to make her exodus down the hall, when the muted swish reached her ears again, this time from the other side of her door.

A spike of adrenaline shot through her veins. “Is someone there?” Annie called. A prolonged swiiiiiish was her response. “Who is it?” she choked out, her voice quavering in the empty house. Annie took a shaky breath and held it.

She was chiding herself for her foolishness and stepping again toward the hall when an answer to her question came from behind the door. “Ga…”

Annie’s blood turned to ice, then exploded with heat, her righteous anger at Lionel’s nerve creating tunnel vision. She flew to the door and pulled it open without checking the sidelight window; as she regarded what stood before her, she’d never hated herself more for her impetuousness.

The Schnabelperchten from the parade were huddled on her porch, their sharp beaks like pointing fingers. The three with tools were at the forefront of the grouping, and with a single jab of the scissors, forced their way inside.

Before Annie could speak, before she could react, before she could think of where she’d left her phone, the Schnabelperchten began their feverish inspection, spreading over her home like bats filling a cave.

“You can’t be in here,” Annie said, not recognizing the shrillness of her voice. “If you don’t get out of my house right now, I’m calling the police.”

None of the five paid her any mind, moving methodically, delving into every crook and crack. Food was swept from refrigerator shelves, mail pulled from its slot, bottles of schnapps were tossed to the floor, reduced to shards of glass glinting from liquid amber pools. In what couldn’t have been more than a minute, Annie’s perfect home was destroyed, the effort employed by the creatures to achieve this result as little as elbowing a dollhouse off its ledge.

Annie tried to protest, to demand they stop, to threaten them again with the police. It took a moment to realize her words were being drowned out, that the chorus of ‘Ga’s’ had become all-consuming. One of the Schnabelperchten must have slipped upstairs unnoticed, for she saw it reappear on the landing. It held in its mittened hands a nondescript folder; Annie’s protests turned to ash in her mouth.

They formed a circle at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for the more industrious of their group to proceed. When the creature with Annie’s folder reached the ground, they turned and approached Annie with the synchronism of dancers.

“Ga… Ga… Ga… Ga…” Their chant fell in time with their slippers.

“Please,” Annie said, tears springing from her eyes. “Please, my house was clean. You were the ones that made it dirty. You were the ones that made the mess.”

The Schnabelperchten with the folder was ushered to the front, where it removed a document despite its mittens. It held the typewritten letter up, but Annie vehemently shook her head. “No,” she said, “you don’t understand. That was a joke, a onetime thing.” Blindly, she stepped back, but collided with the wall, and her tears fell faster still.

“It wasn’t my idea, you don’t understand. The whole thing was Lionel’s fault.” This entreaty, too, was met with only ‘Ga’s,’ and another page extracted from the folder. This time, the Schnabelperchten offered the paper to Annie, indicating it wanted her to read it.

She didn’t have to. Annie knew what it was. A list of all the nonexistent safe houses she’d established, phony destinations to send the foreign, victimized women she was supposed to help. Women who believed they were being rescued, liberated, from months—or years—of hell.

The second page of that document would be a list of businesses, private homes, inns, and hotels, entities that would buy the trafficked women for a price that Annie and Lionel split. It’d been Annie’s idea to make a profit off the women rather than sending them on to secure homes. She reasoned that working—regardless of the jobs being less than minimum wage, or in some cases, nothing but room and board—as hotel maids or personal cleaners was a far cry from drug running and prostitution and had gotten Lionel to buy into her plan with little more than this rationale.

Annie had only used one of her charges to clean her own home on a single occasion, informing the exhausted, non-English speaking woman of her intention via a letter she’d composed using Google Translate. This was the first document the Schnabelperchten had confronted her with, another file she’d been too careless to erase. Sure, Annie had led the woman to believe it was a job interview of sorts, then sold her to an offshoot of Hyatt Hotels. She’d only discovered months later she’d sent the woman to a separate state than that in which her children resided, but what was done was done; there was nothing Annie could do.

Annie felt the night’s unending schnapps roiling in her stomach and placed both hands against the wall to steady herself. “We already got caught,” she pleaded. “My boyfriend told me tonight. We’re going to be confronted tomorrow, we’ll have to own up to it all, and I’ll be forced to bring the operation to an end. If you leave, I’ll clean up everything, the house, the center, my life. I’ll make it like it never happened. I’ll make everything okay.”

“Ga… Ga… Ga… Ga…” The creatures advanced on her several steps.

“This isn’t happening,” Annie whispered. Then louder, angrier, accusatorily, “You aren’t real. You’re characters from a children’s storybook. Someone sent you into scaring me straight.”

The Schnabelperchten with the scissors moved so swiftly, Annie didn’t have time to flinch let alone move away. The blades met in the middle, slicing through muscle and flesh, so smoothly she felt no pain. As she watched, helpless, the creature with the mustard yellow scarf approached, its clippers aimed at those insides already cascading to the floor.

The Schnabelperchten with the broom crumbled up the evidence of her misdeeds, fluffing it into worthy stuffing. Her last coherent thought before darkness pressed on the edges of her vision was the unfairness of being found with proof of her guilt inside her mangled body.

“Please, she croaked, “she said you’d fill me up with sticks and stones. Please take those damning pages with you.”

The Schnabelperchten removed a needle of iron from its pack, and carefully prepared the incriminating document with its thread.

Annie summoned every last ounce of her strength: “Please!”

She should have expected their response:

“Ga… Ga… Ga… Ga…”

To Annie, it sounded like ‘God.’

THE END

Christa Carmen’s work has been featured in anthologies, ezines, and podcasts such as Fireside Fiction, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Outpost 28, and Tales to Terrify. Her debut collection, Something Borrowed, Something Blood-Soaked, is available now from Unnerving, and won the 2018 Indie Horror Book Award for Best Debut Collection. Christa lives in Rhode Island with her husband and their bluetick beagle. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in English and psychology, a master’s degree from Boston College in counseling psychology, and is an MFA candidate at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program, of the University of Southern Maine. You can find her online at her website.

Halloween Extravaganza: Austin Crawley: Choosing Holiday Traditions

I absolutely love that, in lieu of a Christmas story, Austin Crawley wrote us about Christmas traditions in his house… and now I kinda want to do this every year, have people talk about THEIR Christmas traditions. Traditions are such a huge thing in my family and I can say that I am almost obsessed with knowing what others do as well.

Sit back, relax, and maybe you’ll come up with some new ideas to do with your family this year. Halloween is over… Thanksgiving is over… and this is the last day of November, so… Happy Holiday’s, y’all!


Choosing Holiday Traditions

We all grow up with certain holiday traditions, shaped by our geographical location and family cultural traditions. These can vary from one family to another even in a close community, but in the English speaking countries and much of Europe, we’re affected to some extent or other by the spectre of Christmas, including those whose religion doesn’t celebrate the Dickensian holiday that all the marketers tell us we must embrace.

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I, like most Americans, have been bombarded every year with expectations of the ‘holiday season’ which starts with Halloween, continues through Thanksgiving, comes to a climax for Christmas and then expresses an epilogue on New Year’s Eve, just before the heart-shaped candy boxes hit the store shelves in anticipation of February.

I was in my early twenties when I began to question some of the practices I was expected to follow that appeared to be shaped by television ads and retail outlets. The first to be examined was the tradition of the holiday dinner. If you live in the U.S.A., you’ll be familiar with the Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, stuffing, candied yams, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and any other trimmings your family is used to including. It makes for a great celebration meal and if your family is around the average of four people, chances are you’ll be eating leftover turkey for a while and run out of it just in time to do it all again for Christmas!

This close repetition of the holiday meal bothered me long before I grew to adulthood, but it was as a young man that I began to question whether I could break the tradition and not go to Hell for the infraction. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Turkey dinner, but I wanted it to feel more special for Christmas. To accomplish that, I would have to change the menu at Thanksgiving. The trouble with that is the symbolism involved in some of the specific foods and accepted history.

After giving it careful thought, I decided that the important part of the tradition was having a good meal and I started having tacos for Thanksgiving. Lots of them! This actually caught on with my mother and became a new tradition between us. My father was gone by then and my brother was married and lived away from us. The irony was the year I went to visit him the day after Thanksgiving, satisfied that I had avoided the turkey trap, only to find out that he had built his own personal tradition of having friends come over for a traditional turkey dinner on the Friday after!

Roll on to Christmas. Christmas traditions fluctuate from one country to another, but most of us are familiar with the symbolic bringing of greenery into the house to dispel the darkness of winter, the display of lights and colorful ornaments to brighten up those cold, dismal nights, the exchange of gifts among family and close friends and of course, bountiful food and treats.

The specific foods expected in a holiday dinner are subject to variation from one region to another, and this is one of the things I find interesting to examine. The Germanic and Scandinavian countries, for example, include some wonderful spiced cookies among their holiday fare and even the choice of vegetables and desserts are completely different between the U.S.A. and our closest cultural relative, the United Kingdom.

This is one instance where I allowed commercial advertising to shape an adopted tradition to add to my arsenal. Food catalogs like Swiss Colony and Hickory Farms offer all sorts of interesting treats, both sweet and savory around the holidays, but I believe it was Swiss Colony who started me having pastry for breakfast on Christmas. That first one was a Raspberry Kringle, something I note still appears in their Fall catalog, though the price has increased substantially.

Adopting a new tradition is nothing more than a matter of developing a chosen habit over time. Any one of us can pick and choose which traditions we like from any culture and make it part of our own personal customs.

When it comes to customs at Christmas, my favorite is a tradition from Iceland, where books are exchanged on Christmas Eve and time is put aside that evening for reading. Books make great presents if you know the reading tastes of your loved ones and reading among the family was popular in Victorian England, particularly ghost stories. Hence, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which has continued to be popular Christmas reading. My own Christmas story, A Christmas Tale, is based on Dickens’ ghosts and how they might manifest when three young women try to invoke them through a séance, only to be reminded that Christmas is not always nice for everyone.

One of my more recently adopted traditions was actually inspired by one of my characters who decided that Christmas was a time to help those who might be less fortunate, something that Dickens expresses through the mirror of Scrooge’s miserly habits in the early part of his story.

A few years ago I was in a shopping area where a street busker was singing Christmas songs. To the tune of Tis the Season to be Jolly I overheard him sing, “Tis the season to be miserable!” I spun round and looked at him. He pointed to the shoppers passing by and said, “Well look at them!” Sure enough, every face pushing their way through the throng of materialistic humanity looked as though they would prefer to be curled up in front of an open fire with a warm drink, like another song says.

I had been aware of the overblown consumerism that had taken over the holiday long before, but that really brought it home. No, I didn’t stop buying my family Christmas presents, but over time, I developed a habit of collecting things I knew they would like during the year and putting them aside for Christmas. No more buying crap just for the sake of giving someone a package to open! I went through a Christmas catalogue recently and was appalled at the percentage of useless garbage offered up as mindless gift giving fodder. Overpriced food hampers, more grooming aids than anyone would ever use, gallons of perfume and a plethora of ‘cutsie’ novelty gifts to be put in a drawer and forgotten.

Whether you practice the traditions you grew up with or start a few new ones of your own, whether your Christmas reading is ghost stories or you prefer the more heart warming tales, I hope everyone has a great holiday season and will do whatever makes you most happy.

Austin Crawley writes Horror and Dystopian fiction with a supernatural twist. His lifelong love of ghost stories and interest in comparative religions has led him to seek the darker corners of human existence and to exploit them in prose, touching on our deepest fears. he has been known to spend his vacations visiting places that are reported to be haunted.

Crawley is the author of A Christmas Tale, a story about three young women who perform a seance to raise the fictional ghosts of DickensA Christmas Carol with surprising results, and of Letters to the Damned, about a post box in a small English village that reportedly transmits written requests for favours to the dead and damned. His most recent release is A Halloween Tale, which came out last month, a haunted house tale filled with horrific, inter-dimensional terror.

A Halloween Tale ** A Christmas Tale

Halloween Extravaganza: Austin Crawley: Shades of Halloween Past

Shades of Halloween Past

Who doesn’t love Halloween? Scary stories, vampire movies, costumes and parties and most of all when you’re a kid, trick-or-treating!

When I was a kid in California where the nights don’t get as cold as a lot of other places, my brother and I treated trick-or-treating like a non-contact sport. We knew the rules. If the porch light is on, they’ve got candy. Only one hit per house, unless they’re giving out candy bars and a big group of kids is coming along so you can filter in among them and pretend you haven’t been there already.

Back in the days when grocery bags were still made of brown paper and held a lot more than the namby-pamby little plastic bags that replaced them (and are now polluting our oceans), we could fill them up in the hour and a half allotted as trick-or-treat time. When we got older and could stay out later, pushing the 9:00 cut-off time, we dropped off our full bags one year and started on another.

How old do you suppose is too old to go out trick-or-treating? Well, that depends on how creative you are. One year when I was sixteen, my parents had just bought a new refrigerator. I took the box it came in, cut holes for eyes and arms and a chute for dropping in candy, and no one knew there was a teenager inside. A little silver spray paint and some random dial knobs had turned me into a robot, height and age unknown.

Then we always went through the candy and discarded anything that looked like it might have been tampered with. That was silly. Our neighborhood was a small community and the houses we went to were all family homes. There were no bad people waiting for a chance to poison a child in those few blocks near my house.

Teenage Halloween wasn’t so bad when I finally accepted I was too old to beg door-to-door anymore. Halloween treats at parties have their own merits, especially imaginative cupcakes and cookies. We still got to dress up and with adolescence bringing on the pheromones, the costumes got sexier and kissing games began to feature. All in innocence of course. How disappointing it could be to meet a fascinating person at a Halloween party, then look them up at high school the next day to learn they had suddenly got younger and more ordinary!

The kissing games fell by the wayside as adulthood encroached on all our fun, but now that my driver’s license insists that I’m a grown-up, I can look back and see how Halloween fun has affected the person I grew up to be; one who enjoys cosplay and likes to read (and write) scary stories! I still watch the same movies I used to watch as a kid if I’m at home on Halloween night. The 1941 version of The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. was old before I was born, but I still enjoy it more than any of the remakes and have a copy of it on DVD.

Some years I may do no more than wear a wizard hat when I answer the door to give candy to the local kids (well packaged so they can see it hasn’t been interfered with) but Halloween is still a time of letting my imagination fly free into the dark recesses of what makes us afraid and why we still find it so fascinating. Reading scary stories in October gets me in that Halloween frame of mind and by the time the day comes at the end of the month, that wizard hat is all it takes to bring out my inner Bela Lugosi and add a little acting to my responsible adult giving out candy routine.

It’s all a bit of fun. Remember the old saying: “What’s the point of being grown-up if you can’t act childish?”

Happy Belated Halloween everybody!

Austin Crawley writes Horror and Dystopian fiction with a supernatural twist. His lifelong love of ghost stories and interest in comparative religions has led him to seek the darker corners of human existence and to exploit them in prose, touching on our deepest fears. he has been known to spend his vacations visiting places that are reported to be haunted.

Crawley is the author of A Christmas Tale, a story about three young women who perform a seance to raise the fictional ghosts of DickensA Christmas Carol with surprising results, and of Letters to the Damned, about a post box in a small English village that reportedly transmits written requests for favours to the dead and damned. His most recent release is A Halloween Tale, which came out last month, a haunted house tale filled with horrific, inter-dimensional terror.

A Halloween Tale ** A Christmas Tale

Halloween Extravaganza: INTERVIEW: Austin Crawley

Meghan: Hi, Austin. It’s been awhile since we sat down together. What’s been going on since we last spoke?

Austin Crawley: A whole lot of real life, but I’ve been writing. I’ve got a Halloween story wrapping up now and a couple of series coming together in bits and pieces as well as another stand alone book.

Meghan: Who are you outside of writing?

Austin Crawley: Picture Ritchie Valens if he had lived to his late 30s and was into writing instead of guitar. That’s pretty much me.

Meghan: How do you feel about friends and close relatives reading your work?

Austin Crawley: My relatives don’t read my work. I use a pen name so most of them don’t even know I write Horror novels.

Meghan: Is being a writer a gift or a curse?

Austin Crawley: Definitely a gift. Creating imaginary worlds brings more euphoria than any form of intoxicant. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Meghan: How has your environment and upbringing colored your writing?

Austin Crawley: I grew up in a low income area of East Los Angeles where everyone is Catholic, but later went to college at UCLA, so I’m very aware of cultural divides. This came out a little in my first book, A Christmas Tale, which is about three middle class white college girls who do a séance without thinking out the implications of what could happen. One of them does some volunteer work to help the less fortunate.

In my second book, Letters to the Damned, the contrast between a guy from California and people in a small English village makes for a different kind of contrast. I’ve traveled in England so the village, though fictional, is based on a typical northern England village model.

There’s a lot of superstition in Latino Catholicism and that makes good source material for Horror novels. There’s a lot of symbolism couched in my stories, like the white raven who shows up in most of my books.

Meghan: What’s the strangest thing you have ever had to research for your books?

Austin Crawley: A Catholic exorcism rite for my most recent story, A Halloween Tale. Also some information about New Orleans voodoo to get the description of a Ghede right.

Meghan: Which do you find the hardest to write: the beginning, the middle, or the end?

Austin Crawley: Making sure I enough middle has so far been most challenging. I go for fast action and so far my books have been novella length as a result. I have a plan to flesh out the stories I have planned for the series to come.

Meghan: Do you outline? Do you start with characters or plot? Do you just sit down and start writing? What works best for you?

Austin Crawley: I think of a concept and start taking notes. At some point the start of the story will start running through my head and I just go with it. A sort of outline forms along the way.

Meghan: What do you do when characters don’t follow the outline/plan?

Austin Crawley: Characters are independent creatures. I don’t over plan them but let them show me their story.

Meghan: What do you do to motivate yourself to sit down and write?

Austin Crawley: There’s a lot of self-discipline involved in writing. The most prolific writers I know choose a time of day that works for them and make an effort to sit and write at that time every day. I’m working on that. Real life gets in the way a lot. As far as motivation goes, the stories constantly going through my head are my main motivators. They want out! They want to be read by enthusiastic readers! It’s my task in life to bring them across to this plane of existence.

Meghan: Are you an avid reader?

Austin Crawley: Oh definitely! I read every moment I get free. Not just my own genre but a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction.

Meghan: What kind of books do you absolutely love to read?

Austin Crawley: I go through phases of Horror, Fantasy, Historical, Dystopian, and even Steampunk when I can find some written for grown-ups. I keep an open mind. Anything well-written is a possibility.

Meghan: How do you feel about movies based on books?

Austin Crawley: It depends on how well they’re done. A lot of books I enjoy and don’t want to see a film version because that’s going to be a different story. Others translate better in video media, like Game of Thrones. I really enjoyed those books but the television series was so rich with costumes and top quality CGI that my imagination struggles to keep up.

Meghan: Have you ever killed a main character?

Austin Crawley: I write Horror and Dystopian novels. Yes.

Meghan: Do you enjoy making your characters suffer?

Austin Crawley: Not suffer so much as giving them challenges to overcome. There’s no guarantee of a happy ending in my genres so they might suffer if they fail, but the struggle is what makes the story interesting.

Meghan: What’s the weirdest character concept that you’ve ever come up with?

Austin Crawley: smiles The little boy in The Locked Door. That started as a short story and you can still read it online, but it was the kid and his uncanny ability to get into secret places not of this world that made me decide to flesh him out into a novel. It’s in progress now.

Meghan: What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?

Austin Crawley: The best was responses to that story telling me I should expand it into a book. The worst, someone didn’t get why a Mexican protagonist would find fried tomatoes and baked beans in an English style breakfast would seem out of place when Mexicans eat refried beans and salsa. That told me I needed to explain the differences in more detail.

Meghan: What do your fans mean to you?

Austin Crawley: Every writer likes to know that someone enjoys their stories. I would always write even if no one read it, but finding followers on my blog and Goodreads as well as Amazon gives me a warm feeling and inspires me to strive to constantly improve my storytelling skills.

Meghan: If you could steal one character from another author and make them yours, who would it be and why?

Austin Crawley: This one took some thought. I’m big on respecting the boundaries between my imaginary worlds and those of others, but if there’s one character I wish I had written, it would have to be Terry Pratchett‘s version of Death. The concept of looking at things from Death’s point of view isn’t entirely new, but he made him a sympathetic character, along with Death of Rats.

Meghan: If you could write the next book in a series, which one would it be, and what would you make the book about?

Austin Crawley: That would be a real challenge. An author leaves their own mark on a series and trying to fill the next slot would be like doing a cosplay of that author, or else derailing the feeling of continuity for the series.

If I had to choose one, Roger Zelazny‘s Amber series has a lot of room for expanding imagination. It already has prequels written by a different author, written well I might add, but adding something to that world could be an interesting challenge for the imagination.

Meghan: If you could write a collaboration with another author, who would it be and what would you write about?

Austin Crawley: I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman. His collaboration with Terry Pratchett on Good Omens is one of my favorite books of all time, so I think if we were paired up it would have to be some kind of Dark Fantasy with very imaginative supernatural overtones.

Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?

Austin Crawley: I have two series formulating simultaneously. The Locked Door will be finished first, but I anticipate four books in each of the series. Whether I alternate between them or finish one before going on to the other is yet to be seen.

Meghan: Where can we find you?

Austin Crawley: Blog ** Amazon ** Goodreads ** Facebook ** Twitter

Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say that we didn’t get to cover in this interview or the last?

Austin Crawley: Reading expands the mind, it’s all good. Just be prepared to explore some dark corners if you read my books. I like books that make people think.

Austin Crawley writes Horror and Dystopian fiction with a supernatural twist. His lifelong love of ghost stories and interest in comparative religions has led him to seek the darker corners of human existence and to exploit them in prose, touching on our deepest fears. he has been known to spend his vacations visiting places that are reported to be haunted.

Crawley is the author of A Christmas Tale, a story about three young women who perform a seance to raise the fictional ghosts of DickensA Christmas Carol with surprising results, and of Letters to the Damned, about a post box in a small English village that reportedly transmits written requests for favours to the dead and damned. His most recent release is A Halloween Tale, which came out last month, a haunted house tale filled with horrific, inter-dimensional terror.

A Halloween Tale ** A Christmas Tale