GUEST POST: Christina Bergling

What Scares You?

What is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?

This should be an easy question to answer. Considering the amount of horror movies I watch, I should have a scrolling list in my mind from which to choose. However, as I roll through that list, I can’t settle on one I consider scary.

I have a long list of ones that have disturbed and upset me. The Sadness (2021) that I saw at Telluride Horror Show. The Treatment (2014) that I saw at the Stanley Film Festival. Martyrs (2008) and Inside (2007), French movies. The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (2004) by Asia Argento, Dario Argento’s daughter. The Human Centipede (2009-2015), all three obviously.

I can even think of ones that creeped me out or unnerved me. The Conjuring (2013) was “creepy as balls” to quote my husband. Antebellum (2020) and Get Out (2017) for the other horrors they capture. Se7en (1995) for the lust murder.

I could keep going on either list, yet I still don’t land on scary. That begs the inevitable question, what is scary? What do I think makes a movie scary? What scares me, onscreen and off?

I have had vivid, graphic nightmares my entire life. When I was a child, anything and everything I watched would reappear twisted in my nightmares. I had a sheltered childhood, so that would result in the ghosts from the Ghostbusters cartoon haunting me or something equally benign. In short, I was scared of just about everything.

One night, while I was babysitting, I found Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1995) on the family’s HBO or Cinemax or something. I was never allowed to watch anything violent at home, so when I flipped the movie mid-way through, I decided to sneakily watch it at someone else’s house. After all, it was just a movie, and I so wanted to watch horror.

The movie scared the hell out of me. The scene where Matthew McConaughey crushes someone’s head with his mechanical leg embedded in my brain. I can conjure it even now, these decades later. I was so terrified that when the parents came home and I left, I ran home because walking in the dark was too fraught with terrors.

It has been a lot of nightmares and horror movies since that night. Perhaps I have become desensitized. Or perhaps the things that scare me have changed. Or how I define scary itself.

When I muse on what scares me, “adult” or “real” fears are what bubble to the surface of my brain. No supernatural elements or phobias. Family members dying or getting hurt, financial devastation that leads to not being able to take care of my family, failure, myself, being stranded alone in the dark, being trapped. Not all of them are rational, and the scenarios concocted in my mind inflate to being outrageous. Ultimately, I think I would classify these as anxieties rather than full on fears.

When a strange noise creaks from upstairs in a dark and empty house, I definitely startle (I also startle constantly in a haunted house). However, fear does not cinch around my heart. Rather, I resign myself to wait. I’ll find out what it is when it comes to kill me. That behavior might be from overdosing on horror. Never investigate the strange noise.

I’m not proposing that I am fearless. When I’m hiking a mountain and there is a sheer drop off, my pulse surely reminds me that I am a fragile mortal. And the fall would kill me. Yet I find my fears mundane in their everyday origins. Who doesn’t fear these things? It feels like highlights of the human condition.

I have been obsessed with horror so long that any tickle of fear it elicits is exciting. It’s fun, and it’s safe. I can feel the thrill and the injection of adrenaline, knowing nothing is really going to happen. As a creator of horror, I appreciate the manufacturing of terrifying circumstances—events and things that exist beyond our plane.

So, for the sake of this article and to make it more than my subconscious rambling, let’s redefine fear in this context. If movies and books don’t scare me but rather upset and traumatize me, let’s talk about recent times I have been afraid in real life. Skin tingling, fight or flight fear.

I recently lost my daughter in a Target for ten minutes. She wanted to walk down the aisle and swap out some pants. Since the children’s department was in sight from the wide aisle, I figured it would be fine. After all, she has wandered off to look around in a store before. My son and I finished what we were doing and went to find her in that section.

She was not there. Nothing.

Suddenly, no one seemed to be in the area. I hurried through the section, looking behind racks for her curly head and whirling my sight for any hint of movement at the right height. I jogged up and down the aisle, yelling at my son to keep up.

Still nothing.

My mind swelled and filled with worst case scenarios. I saw her finding something interesting and just wandering off. I pictured a stranger snatching her hand and dragging her out the front door. I kept telling myself it was fine, she had to be there somewhere, she would appear any moment; but that frantic mantra did nothing to soothe the pulse raging through my veins.

I could feel every cell in my body. They twitched and vibrated in time with the repeating panic. Every turn with no glimpse of her felt like walking off a precipice, a jump that meant nothing could ever be the same. Even my hands seemed to have vanished.

Fear, cold and consuming, draped over me.

Then she appeared, and all that adrenaline left me trembling as I nearly cried with relief.

As vivid as it was, this is a pretty mundane fear, something to which I think most parents can relate. There is nothing fantastical or irrational about it, which are hallmarks for horror fear for me.

Maternal fear is an instinctual fear. I have also experience primal fear. One summer, I was at Girl Scouts camp with my daughter. Everyone was around the fire, singing and making s’mores. My daughter needed a blanket, so I volunteered to walk down to the cabin. My brain needed a break from the sound.

I meandered down the gravel road, enjoying the pale moonlight painting the ground through the trees and my footsteps as the only sound. The chill of the night air licked at my cheeks, and the calm of solitude flattened over me.

As I approached the cabin, a smell smashed into my face like a wall, hard enough to pack my nostrils and wriggle into my sinuses. The odor was foreign yet distinctly wild. I could taste it. Shaking it off, I continued on the gravel. As the cabin lights came into view, I heard rustling and digging ahead. Squinting against my weak night vision, I made out a hulking black shape.

My mind clicked around the realization: a bear.

Terror flooded through me, independent below my mind. There were no thoughts, no panicked monologue. My body reacted without bothering with evaluation or ratinalization. It knew there was real danger ahead, and it knew down to my marrow that it was time to flee.

With strained effort, I applied my thoughts back into the situation. My legs wanted to run, but I held them fast, reduced the urge to slow backwards steps. Once I was far enough away for my breathing to slow, I turned and hurried back to the fire.

Primal fears might be the most consistent for humans. I don’t think I know anyone who would remain calm and unaffected when faced with a predator that could kill them without much effort. The base reaction in the moment does not even need a brain to identify the threat.

In life and reality, I think it is clear that I have fears, from maternal panic to instinctual flight. When it comes to horror movies and Halloween though, I’m still searching for nightmare fuel to quicken my heart and bleed into my days.

Boo-graphy: Christina Bergling has been writing since childhood. She has written a variety of styles. A blog from Iraq, software user guides, articles for a numismatist magazine. More than anything, she is a horror author.

Crystal Lake released her latest novel, Followers. Limitless Publishing published her novel The Rest Will Come. HellBound Books published her two novellas, Savages and The Waning. She co-wrote Screechers with Kevin J. Kennedy. She is also featured in numerous anthologies, including Collected Christmas Horror Shorts
(1 and 2), Demonic Wildlife, Colorado’s Emerging Authors, and Graveyard Girls.

Bergling lives with her family in Colorado and spends her non-writing time working in IT, hiking mountains, dancing, and sucking all the marrow out of life.

CHARACTER INTERVIEW: Sidney (Followers by Christina Bergling)

Sidney, a single mother with a menial day job, has big dreams of becoming a full-time horror reviewer and risqué gore model. She’s determined to make her website a success, and if her growing pool of online followers is any indication, things are looking good for her Elvira-esque aspirations. In fact, Sidney has so many followers that chatting with them is getting to be a job in itself. More than a job, it might be getting a risky….

When Sidney is attacked on a dark trail late one night, it becomes clear that the horror she loves is bleeding into her real life. She learns that real-life horror is not a game, and being stalked isn’t flattering—it’s terrifying, and it could get her killed.

Sidney—and her loved ones—are now in serious danger. This follower isn’t just another online fan: he knows her movements, and he knows her routine. In fact, he’s right behind her… and when he gets close enough, he won’t take no for an answer.

Meghan: Hey, Sidney. Thanks for agreeing to sit down and talk with me today. What is one word you would use to define yourself?

Sidney: I think maybe “damaged”. Since my divorce, I’ve been sort of lost. The divorce was my fault, and ex hates me. Maybe he should. I try to be a good mother, but I don’t think I’m doing good enough for my son. The only place I seem to any good or I like myself is online. I can find people who make me feel good online.

Meghan: Do you see yourself as the “good guy” or the “bad guy”?

Sidney: I try to be a good guy. I never asked for what happened to me, but maybe it is my fault. Maybe I did this to myself. And to them.

Meghan: What does the plot require you to be? How does this requirement limit you?

Sidney: I have to be naïve, maybe a bit self-deluded. This causes a lot of mistakes and bad decisions.

Meghan: What is your quest?

Sidney: My quest starts as trying to find a new and better life. I want to go from a wounded divorcee working a terrible job to someone better. I want to find a career I love, creating horror content, and I want to find someone(s) who will make me feel better about myself.

Meghan: What do you hope to accomplish, find, or become during the course of your book/series?

Sidney: I want to be that better person with that better life. And I want to be safe, from all the mistakes I’ve made.

Meghan: What do you like about the other main characters? What do you least like about the other main characters?

Sidney: I have the best friends. Kendra is my best friend and is always there for me. We live together and have a Divorced Wives Club for drinking wine and commiserating. Then Brady is my partner in horror art. He takes bloody pictures of me that we use for promotion online. Plus, he and his husband are always there for me. Not to mention all the people I’ve connected to online.

Meghan: When was the last time you lied What made you do it?

Sidney: I lie a lot. Big lies and little lies. My big lie was when I cheated on my ex. However, now my lies are more omissions because I don’t want everyone to see who I am or how much I’m struggling.

Meghan: Who have you betrayed lately? What happened?

Sidney: I betrayed my ex when I cheated on him. I am still paying for that. Since then, I have tried hard not to betray anyone else, even though I hide myself sometimes.

Meghan: Would you say that you are an optimist or a pessimist?

Sidney: I’m somewhere in the middle. Sometimes, I should be more optimistic. Other times, I need to be more pessimistic and realistic.

Meghan: What is your superpower?

Sidney: I love horror. I create content and maintain a blog and website to share that love of horror.

Meghan: What is your biggest secret?

Sidney: My biggest secret is how guilty and how bad I feel about myself. I don’t want to admit everything I’m doing on the internet to make me feel better.

Meghan: Do you live in the right world? (I mean, are you at home in your setting?) How necessary are you to your world?

Sidney: I have two worlds. The real, 3D world and the online one. I think I have a foot equally in each.

Meghan: What is your role in this setting? Are you okay with this role or would you like it to change?

Sidney: In the real world, I am a mom, an ex-wife, a friend, a manager at a cell phone store. I don’t think I’m doing any of these that well. Online, I am horror lover and a social butterfly. I feel like I can hide from my real life online. I like myself better on the internet.

Meghan: Did you turn out the way you expected?

Sidney: Neither my life nor myself turned out how I expected. I thought I would be with my husband still, but I messed that all up.

Meghan: What, if anything, would you change about your life?

Sidney: I would change a lot of my decisions. Clearly, I should not have stayed with my husband, but I wish I had ended things differently. Without the cheating. I also wish I had made different decisions online, specifically who I connected with and what I told them. I did not realize how dangerous it was out there.

Meghan: How do you feel about your author?

Sidney: She’s kind of mean. She makes me pretty unsympathetic and unlikeable person by putting all my flaws and bad decisions on display. I wish she didn’t tell everyone everything about me.

Meghan: If the two of you got together for coffee, what would you want to say to them?

Sidney: I would ask her if writing books is a better career than hosting horror blogs and websites.

Boo-graphy: Christina Bergling has been writing since childhood. She has written a variety of styles. A blog from Iraq, software user guides, articles for a numismatist magazine. More than anything, she is a horror author.

Crystal Lake released her latest novel, Followers. Limitless Publishing published her novel The Rest Will Come. HellBound Books published her two novellas, Savages and The Waning. She co-wrote Screechers with Kevin J. Kennedy. She is also featured in numerous anthologies, including Collected Christmas Horror Shorts
(1 and 2), Demonic Wildlife, Colorado’s Emerging Authors, and Graveyard Girls.

Bergling lives with her family in Colorado and spends her non-writing time working in IT, hiking mountains, dancing, and sucking all the marrow out of life.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Christina Bergling

Meghan: Hey Christina. Welcome back, and thanks for joining us today on Meghan’s Haunted House of Books, New Year’s Day Edition. What is your favorite part of Halloween?

Christina: It’s hard to pick because I love everything. I gravitated to Halloween as a young child, before I ever knew how dark my mind was. I think the costumes drew me in first, maybe the candy too. I still love costumes (and try not to love candy). I used to write Halloween stories the entire season. Now, I write horror all the time.

Meghan: Do you get scared easily?

Christina: No. Admittedly, I’m a bit desensitized. Besides a steady diet of horror, I am prone to very brutal nightmares. Ever since I was a child. It’s challenging for media to rattle me. The last time I was truly scared is when I was a contractor in Iraq. And the one time I lost my daughter in a store for about ten minutes.

Meghan: What is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen and why?

Christina: I don’t get scared much by movies anymore. Disturbed, traumatized, sure. However, when it comes to real fear, I remember watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre The Next Generation when I was babysitting alone. I hadn’t watched any horror before, and it scared the hell out of me. When the parents got home, I ran all the way home in the dark. Watching that movie now, I severely judge myself.

Meghan: Which horror movie murder did you find the most disturbing?

Christina: Human Centipede was pretty traumatic. The skinning in Martyrs also has always stuck with me. Then there’s also when a woman gets sawed in half in Terrifier. And the entire movie The Sadness, end to end. Those are the grisliest I can think of.

Meghan: Is there a horror movie you refused to watch because the commercials scared you too much?

Christina: Never. Though there are ones I avoid because they appear too lackluster in the commercial.

Meghan: If you got trapped in one scary movie, which would you choose?

Christina: Trick ‘r Treat. I love that world. It’s so completely Halloween, and you only get hurt if you need to be punished for violating the rules.

Meghan: If you were stuck as the protagonist in any horror movie, which would you choose?

Christina: I would be Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. I find Hannibal Lecter fascinating, and would like to play the mental game with him.

Meghan: What is your all-time favorite scary monster or creature of the night?

Christina: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is/are my favorite. I can relate to feeling like there are two opposing personalities trapped within you. Plus double the character for one body.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween tradition?

Christina: Again, everything. I watch a horror movie every night in October, which I have dubbed Horror Movie Bingo. Each square is a horror movie element or trope, and I spend the month filling that in. Attending the Telluride Horror Show helps. Then we usually have a costume party. It gives me a good excuse to dress up as an adult when I’m not on stage.

Meghan: What is your favorite horror or Halloween-themed song?

Christina: This year, I’m going with Spooky Scary Skeletons. I like to dance to it.

Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?

Christina: Last year, I said The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. Since then, I would say Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca. The novella is so visceral and gets under your skin. It is written as online correspondence between two people in a unique relationship. It is a throwback to the internet in the 90s. And it is amazing what LaRocca can communicate in those brief entries.

Meghan: What is the creepiest thing that’s ever happened while you were alone?

Christina: When I took my daughter to girl scout camp, I walked back to the cabin in the dark while she was making s’mores. As I was ambling down the path, I heard some rustling and banging. When I got closer, I smelled something distinctly… wild. In my weak night vision, I saw the blurred shape of a bear. Convincing myself to retreat slow, I hurried right back to the fire.

Meghan: Which unsolved mystery fascinates you the most?

Christina: Last year, I said Jack the Ripper. That is still true. However, this year, I will say the mysteries from Netflix’s reboot of Unsolved Mysteries. I want them solved! After an entire episode investment, I was always left itching for answers.

Meghan: What is the spookiest ghost story that you have ever heard?

Christina: Bloody Mary messed me up as a child. I was genuinely terrified she would appear in a dark mirror and snatch me through the glass. Then I stopped believing in ghosts, and the stories became more interesting that spooky.

Meghan: In a zombie apocalypse, what is your weapon of choice?

Christina: Machete. It needs to be able to cut through or off a head but also be quiet to not rouse the other zombies.

Meghan: Okay, Christina. Let’s have some fun… Would you rather get bitten by a vampire or a werewolf? Vampire. Give me blood, immortality, and largely inherent bisexuality, please.

Meghan: Would you rather fight a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion? Alien invasion. I do not want to deal with humans when they come back a second time. They are rough enough the first.

Meghan: Would you rather drink zombie juice or eat dead bodies from the graveyard? Maybe dead bodies? I don’t want to become a zombie, and I can always cook the “meat.”

Meghan: Would you rather stay at the Poltergeist house or the Amityville house for a week? Amityville house. Maybe if I stay alone, things won’t be so bad.

Meghan: Would you rather chew on a bitter melon with chilies or maggot-infested cheese? I’ll take the melon. I would choose a lot over anything with maggots.

Meghan: Would you rather drink from a witch’s cauldron or lick cotton candy made of spider webs? Witch cauldron. I hate spiders! I can’t even type this answer without shuddering.

Boo-graphy: Christina Bergling has been writing since childhood. She has written a variety of styles. A blog from Iraq, software user guides, articles for a numismatist magazine. More than anything, she is a horror author.

Crystal Lake released her latest novel, Followers. Limitless Publishing published her novel The Rest Will Come. HellBound Books published her two novellas, Savages and The Waning. She co-wrote Screechers with Kevin J. Kennedy. She is also featured in numerous anthologies, including Collected Christmas Horror Shorts
(1 and 2), Demonic Wildlife, Colorado’s Emerging Authors, and Graveyard Girls.

Bergling lives with her family in Colorado and spends her non-writing time working in IT, hiking mountains, dancing, and sucking all the marrow out of life.

CHRISTMAS TAKEOVER 2022: Christina Bergling

Elves Watching

“They’re watching me. I can feel it,” I said, picking at the corded edge of the sofa cushion.

The cloudy sky dribbled dim light through the windowpane. Thin white grills carved the glass into a grid. The gentle patter of the rain should have soothed me, yet my anxiety clenched around my heart like a fist.

“Who is watching you, Noel?” My therapist did not look up from his pad as he spoke.

Dr. Morris squeezed his bulk into a wingback chair, the deep crimson of the back encapsulating him, wrapping around him like a mouth. Cropped, wiry white curls spiraled up from his dark scalp and square jaw. I told myself that he could not look like Santa because he was not white like the infamous figure on Coke ads and wrapping paper and figurines, yet when his eyes crinkled at the corner, my chest still seized.

I told myself Santa wasn’t real as I inhaled and again as I exhaled.

“You know who.” My voice pulled taut as I tugged at the edge of the cushion. “We have talked about it a thousand times.”

Dr. Morris took a measured, patient breath. The same he always did before he repeated himself. “Yes, but you need to name them. When you name something, you encapsulate the thing, take some of its power.” Leaning forward, he peered through me with wide pupils like chunks of coal.

I wilted under his gentle scrutiny. The name swelled in my throat, near suffocating me.

“Elves. Always the elves.” I forced the name past my teeth, closing my eyes yet seeing the small, glowing eyes as I spoke.

“The elves your mother told you about when you were growing up. The ones who watched you.”

“The ones I saw. The ones who have been watching me. All the time.” I spoke softly, so they couldn’t hear me.

Glancing to the window, I scanned the bottom of the pane. Not breathing until I made sure I did not see their small glowing eyes. Only rain streaking slow down the glass.

Red. The eyes would be glowing red.

“But we have discussed this.” Clutching his yellow pad in front of his chest, he glanced down at his notes and back at me.

My gaze lingered on the window. “Elves are not real,” I murmured, reciting the empty words. “Elves are not real,” I lied.

Saying it, naming them did not encapsulate anything. It did not calm me. My pulse throbbed hard enough for sweat to prickle along my hair. The fear climbed over my skin then cinched to bind me. It compressed my lungs as I tried to smile thin and keep still.

“I can see this conversation makes you very… uncomfortable.” He wedged himself back into his chair.


“No, it’s fine. I know.”

“Do you know?” His hand found his chin to briefly twirl through the white hair. “Then why are we back here again, discussing being watched?”

I am being watched. Taking a deep breath, I pressed my sweaty palms along my pant legs. “Even though I know that, the feelings remain.”

He exhaled hard. “Oh, that’s perfectly natural.” He flicked his hand toward me at the wrist, a flippant gesture. “Considering your history with your mother and the holiday, I know Christmas is challenging for you. Our cognitive thoughts are often different from our emotions. The two do not operate in parallel. You may know something in your mind, but that doesn’t convince your heart.”

I nodded, because what he said about Christmas was true. However, my mind and heart were in alignment on this. No one else believed me. No one had ever believed me.

When my mother told me about the elves, I was seven years old. As we sat at the table with Thanksgiving leftovers for breakfast, I shoveled cranberries into my mouth and regaled her with my long Christmas list. Grimacing a smile, my mother tapped her fork on her untouched plate.

In a flat voice, she told me that Santa would only bring me all those things if I was good and that he had little elves watching me all year to report back. I laughed at first, but then the idea burrowed into my brain, sprouting roots and branching through me. When she looked at me with wide and dead eyes, I knew she was telling me the truth.

But I didn’t see them until the next year. By the time I glimpsed their tiny, glowing red eyes, I had nearly forgotten about the elves. I was doubting Santa himself by that point.

“Have you seen the elves this year?” My mother slurred, the ice cubes in her glass clinking in a familiar song.

“There’s no such things as elves.” I baited her, examining her reaction from the corner of my eye for confirmation that I was right.

My mother’s scoff tumbled into a chuckle as her fingers fumbled over the figurines she was attempting to set up. They tipped and rolled under her intoxicated touch. A fat Santa with a round belly and huge grin. Identical reindeer in different inflight poses, one with a red nose. Then the stout, jovial elves looking like trolls.

Attempting to encircle Santa with the elves, her haphazard placement instead made the North Pole look like a battlefield. As I watched her, I knew all her sloppy decorations and preparations would be wasted. Like every year.

Her face suddenly sharpened, came into focus as she leveled her eyes through me. “Oh, there are elves, Noel.” The curling edges vanished from her voice, making her almost sound like a stranger.

Her eyes burrowed into me, their severity making my skin itch. Then she flicked her gaze at the elven figures. All six stood upright and at attention. All six faced me. Gasping, I recoiled and bumped into the wall behind me. Simultaneously, with a soft porcelain crack, all the elves snapped their faces up to me, and their eyes glowed red.

The scream billowed out of my throat as I tried to press through the wall. My mother’s laughter chased my scrabble up the stairs.

“I told you they were real!” She shouted before I could slam my door shut.

Panting and shaking, I pinned myself into the door and slid down into a crouch. My heaving diaphragm assaulted my thighs as I clutched myself. There was no Santa. All the kids at school had said it; it was unanimous. And if there was no Santa, there were no elves. Yet each time I blinked, I saw those tiny red eyes.

The tears stung my face when I planted my head on my knees, listening to my own brewing sobs accumulate in my lap. Even then, I knew the tears were not for the elves. They were for my mother, the stumbling version and whatever sharpness had just seized her. Her elves just uncorked them from my eyes.

The wave crashed over me and receded. Breathing slow, I lifted my face. When my eyes met the window, six sets of tiny glowing eyes fixed on me through the glass. I screamed again, but my mother never came.

The next morning, the elven eyes greeted me when I woke myself up to get ready for school. They followed me to the windowpanes of my classrooms. They appeared between tree trunks on my walk home.

For the first few months, I told my mother, even begged for her help. She only said, “I told you.” Eventually, I stopped telling her, then stopped even talking to her at all.

Somehow, even then, I knew I couldn’t tell anyone else, that while my mother believed too much, the rest would not believe me at all. I saw the elves so often that I nearly went blind to them, like saying a word so much the syllables fall apart in your mouth. Yet, each time, my chest still contracted in fear to remind me of their menace.

In college, I made the mistake of getting too drunk and telling the entire party about my life-long stalkers. I was rewarded with elf gifts from each of my roommates that year, wrapped in their mocking laughter. My first long-term partner said I mumbled about elves in my sleep before I woke up screaming.

At my mother’s burial, I saw all the eyes peeking from behind distant tombstones. For once, in that moment, they were almost a comfort.

When I had stumbled onto a night road fleeing their reflection in every storefront window, a black SUV blared its horn and slammed into me. I woke up in a narcotic haze, tugging against the soft restraints around my wrists. The nurse said I had flown into a violent rage, shrieking about the elves that were out to get me. I had broken one orderly’s nose in the process.

Even there, the red glowing eyes glared at me through the high hospital window.

And there, I met Dr. Morris.

“Noel, we have talked about this.” Dr. Morris’s voice snapped me back to the present on his stiff green couch. I jolted and immediately glared at the window. Still a vacant pane. “You do not have to celebrate Christmas. You do not have to decorate or participate in any way. You can change your name if you truly want to separate yourself from you mother’s fixation.”

I rubbed my hands over my face, pressing my fingers into my eyes until I saw stars. Stars that appeared red and glowing.

I snapped my eyelids open. I could feel them before I could see them. The touch of their stare was tactile, penetrating. The elves were at the window, lined up along the bottom of the pane, their noses flattened against the glass. I could see the miniature plumes of steam from their greedy pants. Stifling the gasp in my throat, my body went rigid, nearly rising off the cushion.

Pretend you don’t see them. Pretend they are not there.

“What’s wrong?” Dr. Morris straightened and followed my gaze, turning in his chair toward the window.

The elves ducked down before he could glimpse them. As they always did.

The tears returned to my eyes, leaving me swimming in that overwhelming helpless feeling. He was going to have me committed if I did not wrangle myself back under control. Then I would be trapped in one room, where they could always see me, where they could creep ever closer.

“Nothing,” I snapped. Every muscle remained clenched. I could barely breathe.

“Noel,” he scolded. “What do you see?”

Pinching my face closed, I shook my head. As if I could will it untrue. As if that had ever worked in all these years.

“Noel, tell me what you see. You are safe here.”

I wanted to laugh at how wrong he was. My lip quivered uncontrollably, and I could feel the wag tremble up into my cheeks. It was shaking the tears loose.

If I squeezed hard enough, maybe I could keep my eyes closed. That had never worked before. I was always too scared of what the elves would be doing on the other side of my eyelids.

“Noel.” Dr. Morris’s tone tightened. “Noe—” A wet sound sliced through my name, turning the syllables into gargles. A strange, liquid gasp replaced his words.

My heart hammered, igniting every inch of my skin. As I pried my eyes open, I could feel the air around me. I clasped my hands over my mouth to contain the scream.

The elves crawled over Dr. Morris’s body, scurrying and teaming like insects. They were not the porcelain figures my mother had clumsily loved and eventually shattered in her drunken hazes. Yet those red eyes were the same. The same from that first night and every day that followed.

Their pale, grey skin tugged into harsh wrinkles to carve gruesome visages. Prickly black eyebrows turned down over the glowing eyes, yet wide grins of pointed teeth contradicted their frowns, contorted their faces into something horrifying. Each sported soiled red and green clothes with lopsided and wilted pointy hats. Coarse hairs sprouted long and angry from edges of their shirts and pants.

Even in my deepest nightmares, I had never imagined them this ghastly.

All six of them stared at me, as Dr. Morris’s blood spurted and rained down on them. Their faces were frozen in silent laughter. I did not move. I had no idea what to do. They had never been this close. I had never been without the glass barrier between us.

One elf tore sheets from Dr. Morris’s pad, tossing them to flutter around his twitching feet. Another stuffed small fingers through the wound parting Dr. Morris’s throat. Another joined to help tear and rip the skin, exposing the limp cords and tendons within.

The elf on his chest threw its head back and released a piercing scream. Something between a shriek and laughter. I gripped my ears to muffle it, but it seemed to be blaring directly into my brain. When it stopped, the elf looked at me, almost smiled, and wiggled into Dr. Morris’s mouth.

Dr. Morris’s body settled, slumping heavy in the chair, dripping over the armrests, but his head jerked and cracked from side to side. Squishing and tearing sounds spilled from his hanging lips. As his head jostled, his dead eyes found me, stared into me like the elves always did. My hands clutched the couch cushion, sweating through it, yet I could not move. I was frozen in petrified wonderment.

Dr. Morris’s head stilled, and the sounds changed. The wriggling shifted to more of a tugging. My head tilted as my brain reeled to identify the sounds. The head jerked forward and back, causing the body to convulse in the chair. Then with one hard and sickening pop, Dr. Morris’s right eye disappeared into his skull.

I gaped into the vacancy. The impulse to draw closer and peer into the void tingled on my skin, but I clung to the cushion against it. Time seemed to stop and grow as dark as his bloody eye socket.

In the hideous hole, behind the dangling eyelids and fringe of limp lashes, two red, glowing points replaced his eyeball.

“I told you,” I whispered to Dr. Morris as those burning eyes remained fixed on me.

Boo-graphy: Christina Bergling has been writing since childhood. She has written a variety of styles. A blog from Iraq, software user guides, articles for a numismatist magazine. More than anything, she is a horror author.

Crystal Lake released her latest novel, Followers. Limitless Publishing published her novel The Rest Will Come. HellBound Books published her two novellas, Savages and The Waning. She co-wrote Screechers with Kevin J. Kennedy. She is also featured in numerous anthologies, including Collected Christmas Horror Shorts
(1 and 2), Demonic Wildlife, Colorado’s Emerging Authors, and Graveyard Girls.

Bergling lives with her family in Colorado and spends her non-writing time working in IT, hiking mountains, dancing, and sucking all the marrow out of life.

GUEST BOOK REVIEW by Elana Gomel: Hallowe’en Party

Hercule Poirot 41:
Hallowe’en Party
By: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery, British Mystery
Publication Date: November 1969 (reissued in October 2006)
Pages: 320

When a Halloween party turns deadly, it falls to Hercule Poirot to unmask a murderer in Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery, Hallowe’en Party.

At a Halloween party, Joyce – a hostile thirteen year old – boasts that she once witnessed a murder. When no one believes her, she storms off home. But within hours her body is found, still in the house, drowned in an apple-bobbing tub. That night, Hercule Poirot is called in to find the “evil presence.” But first he must establish whether he is looking for a murderer or a double-murderer…

Child’s Play or Child’s Murder? Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party

Mrs. Ariadne Oliver is a kind, if somewhat scatterbrained lady, who loves apples and writes bestselling murder mysteries. Though a delightful person, unfortunately, she has never existed. Mrs. Ariadne Oliver is a literary character, a creation of Dame Agatha Christie who introduced her in her later books as a wry alter ego.

In 1969, Mrs. Oliver is about to celebrate Halloween at her friends’ house in Kent, UK. As the hostess is bustling around, trying to get everything in order, Mrs. Oliver ponders the difference between squash and zucchini, between Halloween and Thanksgiving, and between life and death:

“It was rather remarkable, seeing so many pumpkins or vegetable marrows, whatever they are… The last time I saw one of these…was in the United States last year – hundreds of them. All over the house. I’ve never seen so many pumpkins…They were everywhere in the shops, and in people’s houses, with candles or nightlights inside them or strung up. Very interesting, really. But it wasn’t for Hallowe’en party, it was Thanksgiving. Now I’ve always associated pumpkins with Hallowe’en, and that’s the end of October. Thanksgiving comes much later, doesn’t it? Isn’t it November, about the third week in November? Anyway, here, Hallowe’en is definitely the 31st of October, isn’t it? First Hallowe’en and then, what comes next? All Souls’ Day? That’s when in Paris you go to cemeteries and put flowers on graves. Not a sad sort of feast. I mean, all the children go too and enjoy themselves”.

The jarring transition from grief in cemeteries to kids having fun captures the essence of Halloween. It is a holiday of candy and ghost stories; of pumpkins and ghouls; of good cheer and deep fear. And in her own inimitable way, Ariadne Oliver – or rather, her creator, Agatha Christie – has captured the deep duality of this strangest of all feasts.

Hallowe’en Party is not as well-known as Christie’s earlier novels, but it is just as accomplished, while considerably darker. Published in 1969, it features indefatigable Hercule Poirot who, by this time, would be around 120 years old. But he is still capable of solving a murder mystery. Poirot is invited by Mrs. Oliver to investigate a series of crimes around the Quarry Garden in Kent. The crimes are atrocious: four murders, two of them involving children, and an attempted murder of yet another child. The ambience is brooding and ominous: a party ending with a corpse; a mysterious sunken garden; a contested country estate.

We could easily imagine the setup as the beginning of a slasher movie. And indeed, the novel generates a sense of dread by constantly hinting at some unspecified demonic forces at play. There are so many references to serial killers, insanity, witches, and ghouls, you would expect the knife-wielding Michael Myers to pop up from behind the bushes and go on a rampage. After all, the first Halloween movie that crystallized the connection between the holiday and slasher aesthetics came out less than ten years after Christie’s novel, in 1978.

But this is not Christie. Though some of her other novels verge on supernatural horror (especially the superb And Then There Were None, 1939), in her Poirot books, the solution is always rational and logical, the horror of violence defused by reducing it to a bloodless puzzle. At the end, there is a logical explanation, justice is done, and the cozy mystery solved. Poirot, the voice of reason, dismisses out of hand any talk of madness, possession, or ghosts. In Poirot’s world, mayhem is only a pretext for ratiocination, a game with set rules, a game even a child can play. And so, despite the gruesome nature of the murders in Hallowe’en Party, the motive for them is neither sexual nor supernatural but a good old-fashioned desire for profit and fear of discovery (spoilers alert!). Poirot’s reasonable explanation for the deaths of 13-year-old Joyce and her little brother is supposed to dispel the horror of their violent end.

But does it? By the time the murderers finally get their just comeuppances (spoilers alert again!), we have been inundated with so many disturbing references to madness, sexual depravity, possession, demonic forces, and the Devil that the tidy ending rings hollow. As a cleaning lady who is reputed to be a witch ominously suggests, the smug upper-middle-class suburb of Woodleigh Common is infested with evil: “the devil’s always got some of his own. Born and bred to it.” When the children of Woodleigh Common are having a Halloween party, is it a child’s play or a child’s sacrifice?

Mrs. Oliver’s stream of consciousness quoted above is, in fact, a pretty accurate summary of the history of Halloween. It started as the pagan feast of Samhain and later merged with the Catholic All Saints’ Day, designated as such by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century. The night before November 1 was known as All Souls, or All Hallows, Eve, which is the origin of the word Halloween, still spelled in Christie’s novel in the old-fashioned way with an apostrophe. Neither Samhain nor All Hallows Eve were innocent entertainment. Samhain may have involved human sacrifices, while All Hallows Eve was believed to be the time when the dead walk among the living. In the Middle Ages, the fear of ghosts and witches was absolutely real, and neither were a laughing matter. Even the carnival elements – dressing up, masking, drinking, and dancing – were linked to fertility cults that warded off death by engaging in sexual magic.

The reason why Halloween mutated from a pagan ritual to a kiddies’ night out had to do with the rise of science and rationalism in the Industrial Age. Folklore and superstition became an embarrassing reminder of the more “primitive” stages of cultural development. The Victorians saw themselves as the adults of history; everything that went on before was childish, immature; in short, a child’s play.

Only it did not quite work out this way. Nightmares turned out to be impervious to the light of reason; science did not dispel the fog of superstition; and irrational evil came back in force during the massacres of the last century. And Halloween persisted in its duality: both a whimsical entertainment and a night of terror; both a child’s play and adult horror; both trick-or-treating and serial murder.

Hallowe’en Party reflects this duality. Some of the customs in the novel will strike the American reader as quaint. There is no trick-or-treating but there is bobbing for apples (lifting apples from a bucket of water with your teeth). No face-painting or masks but mirrors are handed out, so girls can see faces of their future husbands (a practice widespread in medieval Europe and reflected in some spooky German and Russian ballads about a dead bridegroom coming to fetch the incautious bride). No candy but there is the Snapdragon – a dish of raisins set on fire. All these customs descend from ancient pagan rituals: apples are linked to fertility cults; mirrors trap souls; and the Snapdragon recalls the Viking funeral pyre. Surrounded by echoes of the Druidic ceremonies, the murder of a young girl is initially presented as some sort of demonic sacrifice, or perhaps a sex crime perpetrated by a madman.

But at the end it turns out to have been just a game. Christie’s novels seldom leave you with unanswered questions about the nature of evil or the origins of criminality. They are soothing puzzles to occupy your mind; cozy mysteries; precursors to Midsomer Murders. And yet, even as all the loose ends are tied up, there is something darker left unspoken. Next time you want to attend a Hallowe’en Party, remember that at All Souls’ Eve, evil walks, and evil is not a child’s play. Dame Agatha Christie who was knighted by the Queen for her contribution to British culture knows how to have her cake and to eat it; to reassure her readers and to disturb them; to have fun and to teach a lesson. So. let’s have Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s ironic self-portrait, have the last word, as she does in Hallowe’en Party:

“’That’s right,’ said Mrs. Oliver in an exaggerated voice, ‘blame it all on me as usual’”

Elana Gomel was born in a country that no longer exists and has lived in many others that may, or may not, be on the road to extinction. She currently resides in California. She is an academic with a long list of books and articles, specializing in science fiction, Victorian literature, and serial killers. She is also a fiction writer who has published more than ninety short stories, several novellas, and three novels. Her story “Where the Streets Have No Name” was the winner of the 2020 Gravity Award, and her story “Mine Seven” is included in The Best Horror of the Year 13 edited by Ellen Datlow. She is a member of HWA.

Little Sister
A schoolgirl steps between a soldier and a ravening monster…

1943. Soviet Union is under attack as WW2 is raging. Fighting in the doomed battle of Kursk, Andrei finds himself in a strange city where Svetlana, a girl he has never seen but who looks eerily familiar, saves him from a fist-faced creature. When Svetlana’s family is lost, the two embark on a harrowing odyssey across the snow-covered plain, battling deformed former humans and taken prisoners by the army of black stars. Against impossible odds, they reach their destination where they discover a secret that will change history.

Little Sister is a dystopian historical fantasy set in the Soviet Era. Presenting a richly imagined alternative history world, this is a tale of friendship, survival, and heartbreak. Fans of The Book Thief and The Wolfhound Century will enjoy this striking fantasy rooted in Russian fiction.