We need to talk. About Halloween candy. You’ve got it all wrong, I guarantee it. I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, no way Mr. Frank, Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups are the best Halloween candy, I’m certain of it. And, while you make a good case, Reece’s are an incredible Halloween candy to score in your trick-or-treat bag (and I maintain that Reece’s Pieces are superior to the peanut butter cup, but that’s another argument for another time), they are not the ultimate score.
The problem is, the ultimate Halloween candy goes criminally unnoticed year after year. It’s not right. The greatest Halloween candy to land in your trick-or-treat bag (or bucket, which you shouldn’t be using anyway because trick-or-treat buckets are limited and cumbersome) is Willy Wonka’s Bottle Caps. See? I know, you just smacked yourself in the forehead and said, Duh!
What? You didn’t smack yourself in the forehead and say, Duh? There’s no possible way in the name of all the ghosts, ghouls, witches and Whatchamacallits that Willy Wonka’s Bottle Caps are the ultimate Halloween candy? They can’t possibly be better than a Reece’s (in any form), Snickers, 3 Musketeers or Skittles. You are a fool if that is your mindset.
Listen, I get it. You’ve been bombarded with big chocolate advertising you’re whole life. It started out with the chocolate bar, graduated to chocolate covered candies that refuse to melt in your mouth. From there it was peanuts and nougat. Add in a cookie and cover it with caramel. All wonderful, to be sure. But the more the big candy companies vie for your Halloween dollar, they more complex and over-thought the offerings become. With clever marketing they sell you on overindulgence. It’s unnecessary. You need to find your roots.
Let’s get back to basics, the sugar!
The heart of any candy, chocolate or otherwise, is sugar. Nope, it isn’t the cocoa bean that makes the confectionery world go ‘round. It’s the sugar cane!
Willy Wonka’s Bottle Caps are masterpieces of the use of sugar in candy.
When you think sugar you think candy, cake, flavored juice bastardizations and, of course, soda. Soda! Liquid candy! Mr. Wonka, when not slaving away over the Ultimate Gobstopper, married the best of both sugary worlds and created a soda flavored candy! Bottle Caps!
You must’ve tried them at some point. They are hard and disc-shaped like Smarties (another fine and underrated Halloween addition to any discerning trick-or-treat bag). They are chewable Necco Wafers but with a less chalky finish. They are fruity and vibrant like Skittles or Starburst. And, most amazing of all, when you bite into them there is a sort of effervescence on the tongue. No, they aren’t carbonated candy but they taste like carbonated candy. You’re favorite soda pop in a fun little bite-sized candy!
Does your precious peanut butter cup do that? Didn’t think so.
It’s cool. I know I’ve got your attention now. Its that marketing thing. Willy Wonka doesn’t wield the advertising budget of the other guys. But, Willy Wonka doesn’t need to invest in a Wall Street marketing firm to get his goodies sold. Nope, he puts his money where his mouth is. He takes it on down to Flavortown!
Still, its hard as hell to score yourself one of these little treasures on Halloween. The best you can hope for is that you’re local trick-or-treat stop has invested in a Willy Wonka Halloween candy mix ‘n match bag. They’ll have Nerds, Sweet Tarts, Laffy Taffy, and Gobstoppers. And of course, they’ll have those precious treasures, a sleeve of Bottle Caps.
Don’t be shy. Demand the Bottle Caps. Let it be known you want Bottle Caps and nothing less! Dip your grubby little hands into that bowl full of sugar overdoses and go for the Bottle Caps. Take two, you are in the know now.
Demand Bottle Caps when all they have is m&m’s and Twix (which, by the way, we all know that the Left Twix is the superior Twix.) Say nay when you are offered a Dum-Dum lollipop and tell the sugar dispenser they are the dumb-dumb for not stocking Bottle Caps this Halloween. Turn your nose up at Hershey bars, Crunch bars and Dove medallions.
Make a stand! Demand Bottle Caps.
This is a process. It won’t change in the course of one or two Halloweens. Play the long game. Get the word out around the neighborhood that the kids demand Bottle Caps first and foremost! Soon the adults will be stocking up on bulk purchases of Bottle Caps to be the most talked about house on the block that Halloween. Sooner or later you’ll get that one adult who has to stand out all around town. They will be giving out full sized tubes of Bottle Caps, the ultimate score! Greater than a full sized chocolate bar, more treasured than a two-cup Reece’s package. The full sized, large disced tube of Willy Wonka Bottle Caps is the greatest treasure anyone can hope for at Halloween.
We can get there. You and I. Together.
Boo-graphy: Frank J. Edler is the author of many twisted novels and uncanny short stories often cited as ‘laugh out loud’ reads. His writing walks the fine line between horror and the bizarre. He resides in New Jersey, a land that is both horrific and bizarre. When not writing, Mr. Frank hosts the wildly popular Bizzong! The Weird & Wacky Fiction Podcast heard exclusively on Project Entertainment Network.
Death Gets a Book — Vincent and his nagging wife, Wanda wind up getting themselves killed in Tijuana. Vincent wakes to find that he is now the Grim Reaper. With minimal training he is cast into the world of Deaths to collect the souls of the dead. The only wrinkle is his dead wife has come back as a screaming Banshee. She is hellbent on getting her husband to realize that its not ’til death do they part and he is set on getting through his first day on the job.
He will not go it alone. Along the way he is helped by his co-workers: a cowboy, a midget, an action figure and a bumbling grim reaper from Salem.
Will Death get the soul to Charon’s skiff by the end of the work day or will a squadron of maniac Banshee’s stop Death and upend the balance of power in the underworld? And, will Vincent ever be rid of his nagging wife?
Death gets a book and now you do too!
Scared Silly — What do you get when you mix a penis eating zombie with a downtrodden grim reaper then add a pinch of lycanthopic mad scientist, sprinkle it with a grocery store full of living food and mash it into a frightening red eyed monster?
You get SCARED SILLY!
Let author, Frank J Edler, take you into a world of not-so-serious horror. This collection features five frighteningly funny tales from the wicked and wacky writer. Laugh yourself to death as you read the stories: Old Scrote, SPLAT!, Death Gets A Life, GROSSeries and Wolfberries.
Brats in Hell — Otto Van Der Noodle has just been crowned the Bratwurst King of Wisconsin when he is gunned down in cold blood. Otto finds himself in line at the pearly gates when he is accidentally cast through the gates of Hell.
Otto lands in the middle of a power struggle for the throne of Hell. Satan rules the underworld with an iron fist and a delicious bratwurst. Satan’s brother, Dagobert has just found his secret weapon, Otto Van Der Noodle and his prize-winning bratwurst.
Dagobert will try to tip the balance of control in Hell using Otto’s delectable bratwursts. But Satan may have found the ultimate weapon in his new favorite pet demon.
Souls will be tortured, demons will fight demons and bratwursts will be cooked. Who will come out as the top chef and leader of Hell when the cook-off to end all cook-offs is fought?
Read BRATS IN HELL to find out. Its the WURST book ever written!
Scatterbrain — It’s hard being a Killer Brain. Just ask Scatter, a Killer Brain who just wants to be a Killer Brain. But he can’t, his parents want him to get a job. Scatter would rather do what he does best, terrorize the city with his pack of Killer Brain friends. But Scatter is about to find out life isn’t fair.
Crazed neurosurgeon, Dr. Justin Case is out to avenge the death of his parents at the hands of the Killer Brains. And now he has Scatter in his sights. Along with his cohort, Coda, Dr. Case will stop at nothing to exact his revenge and seek the closure he has sought since he watched his parents get devoured by Killer Brains as a child.
The odds are stacked against Scatter. He must navigate life while trying not to fall into the clutches of his would-be nemesis. Can Scatter get by without a little help from family and friends. He just wants to live life doing what he loves but sometimes responsibility has a way of rearranging your priorities. Join Scatter as he navigates through life, the job market and a city full of crazies all keeping him from doing what he loves, being a Killer Brain.
They inculcated us into an alternative reality of Halloween and the macabre, plying us with forbidden fruit the like of which was as likely to be offered us on the BBC as pigs had of flying. Here in the UK, we were dumbed and numbed by the innocuous (but strangely terrifying) fare of Twizzle, Andy Pandy and Sooty and Sweep. (Google if you dare.)
Far more so than the more palatable and educational stuff our domestic television channel was churning out. (I use the singular because for my early childhood, there was only one in the UK, until ITV – “independent” television – arrived to lower the tone. And way before Channel 4 in the 1980s lowered it even further.)
No great surprise then, that, as a writer of horror, I feel I was created by these imported monstrosities as surely as if someone had put current through bolts in my neck and yelled to the heavens that I was alive.
I was alive, suddenly.
My love of all things grotesque, from horror movies that were way beyond my cultural reach, to the heady symbolism of Edgar Allan Poe, began right there.
You could say, “Halloween” dug a hole deep in my heart.
And like many a horror writer before and since, it gave me comfort, because it spoke of powers of the night that were silent by day, of lusts that a child’s imagination cannot comprehend, of the lure and perils of the undead – of loved ones who, maybe, just maybe, could come back from the grave, but… changed!
It was thrilling. It was terrifying. It was real because it was unreal.
It was where I belonged.
And maybe those feelings lay buried or maybe they didn’t. Because when they finally came to the surface again, and Halloween came to play in my own back yard, things were never the same again.
CUT TO: 1992
I’d been writing for a living ever since I left film school. After a stint in advertising in London, I sold one of my first screenplays – wow! – and in a foolish commitment to luck over probability, decided to become a freelance screenwriter, full time.
You won’t have seen it unless you are as old and decrepit as me, but the film was called Gothic, and was about the birth of Frankenstein in the mind of a young girl of nineteen, Mary Shelley. It starred the late Natasha Richardson, with Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron, and was directed by one of the most amazing British directors of all time – Ken Russell, who’d made the febrile phantasmagoria, The Devils. One of my favourite films of all time. And one of the most controversial.
No pressure, then.
A few gigs after that, I found myself in Hollywood working with the director of The Exorcist, William Friedkin, no less, on a film that became The Guardian, based upon a novel about an evil nanny who abducts children from good hard working middle-class families in contemporary Los Angeles. (Again, Google if you must.)
After that baptism of fire, with my confidence shrivelled by the process, I returned to England and, wanting to get in touch with my inner core as a writer again, pitched a new idea to a BBC producer who liked my writing, Ruth Baumgarten.
It was a TV series, a bit like The X-Files (given The X-Files wouldn’t exist for another 10 years) – a reporter and a paranormal investigator team up to find out the truth behind a haunted house.
A slam dunk, you might think? Well, no.
The BBC didn’t bite. The supernatural, then as now, is a hard sell for Auntie, more at home with costume dramas and cop shows.
But my producer was undaunted.
“Could we do it as a single drama? There’s a 90-minute slot going begging.”
“Great,” I said. “But the whole six hour series couldn’t be done in an hour and a half. What if we did the last episode and the rest is back story? What if we just do that last episode, a live broadcast from a haunted house on Halloween night… BUT WE DO IT AS IF IT REALLY IS LIVE?”
Ruth’s jaw dropped. “Do you think we can do it?”
I shrugged. “Let’s try.”
Many drafts and a brilliant director (Lesley Manning) later, we began shooting it over a cold summer, first the video footage from the bland house in suburban London where the poltergeist infestation was supposed to be taking place, then coverage in the fake TV studio where the presenter and various experts were supposedly observing the happenings from afar.
Obviously, in order to control what we could control, we weren’t going to film it “live” at all – and certainly not on Halloween night, the night when the programme was ostensibly supposed to be going out.
We had been given no transmission date at the time of shooting. Nevertheless, Lesley took a huge gamble in placing all manner of Halloween paraphernalia on set – carved pumpkins, plastic cobwebs, apples dangling on strings –and insisted on long takes, to give the illusion of verisimilitude that the project required if we were to pull it off.
All this long before The Blair Witch Project and the whole wagon train of “found footage” horror films that followed. They say our BBC drama Ghostwatch is the grandaddy of them all. And maybe they’re right. I wouldn’t be so grand as to claim that honour.
But the effect it had must surely put it up there.
Because when our show was transmitted, none of us could have expected… Wait. What did we expect, exactly?
We’d faked a “live-stream” ghost, right in front of the TV viewers’ eyes, audaciously and unapologetically. Without warning the audience that what they were about to see wasn’t true.
It was mere fiction, albeit wrapped up in the visual language of what seemed like an outside broadcast.
It was done like that – with real presenters like Michael Parkinson, a TV legend who’d famously interviewed Mohammed Ali, as the anchorman – to make the conceit work as planned. Not to “fool” anybody, any more than any drama “fools” anybody by convincing them it’s real. Neither did we expect anyone to feel like they’d been “had”.
Boy, were we wrong.
The phone calls coming in jammed the BBC switchboard even as the programme was being aired that Halloween night.
By the end, Ghostwatch was reputedly one of the most complained about TV programmed of all time. People – or at least some people – were not pleased. They thought they’d been taken for mugs. Others were just plain terrified, and wanted to swing a punch at the makers.
“Heads must roll at the BBC!” screamed the tabloid headlines that hit us in the subsequent days.
Michael Parkinson was door-stopped and had to say with his trademark Yorkshire bluntness that “People are daft! Some of them even believe the wrestling!” He stood by us, having bought into the concept from the start, getting immediately from his days presenting TV’s Cinema what a TV horror movie was trying to do.
Scare people! Duh!
Still, Sarah Greene (another real TV presenter cast under her own name) had to appear during children’s hour to assure young viewers that she hadn’t been killed by the ghost who’d trapped her in the closet under the stairs.
Meanwhile the two girls (real sisters) who featured in our story went to school on Monday morning and had their 15 minutes of fame in the playground, having enjoyed every minute of playacting a ghost story for television that, as it turned out, had spooked the nation.
To the extent that questions were even raised in Parliament.
From the BBC duty log we found out that three women had been so scared watching it they’d gone into labour.
We received a letter from an irate vicar telling us that, even though he knew the drama was fake, we had nonetheless “conjured up dangerous, evil forces”.
Best of all, Ruth got a letter from one woman asking for compensation because her husband, a war veteran, had shit his pants with terror and she wanted to buy him a new pair of jeans.
The whole experience, to put it mildly, was most peculiar on a psychological level, if nothing else, because for every person who’d thought the events of Ghostwatch were really happening, right up to the end credits, there was another who didn’t buy it, from the first ten seconds.
For every person outraged at the outrageous “hoax” perpetrated on their unsuspecting selves and their vulnerable children, there was another who thought it was the most exciting and provocative programme the BBC had ever made.
Well, we’d liked to have done. We’d liked to have, at least, discussed the aftermath, and explained why we wanted to created such a drama in the first place.
I, for one, had the answer readily to hand: Firstly, I wanted to create a really good ghost story for television, just as I’d been captivated and influenced by the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas and Nigel Kneale’s seminal TV play The Stone Tape. As a secondary objective – and this was always seen by us as an added bonus – Ghostwatch was intended to be a satire about the medium itself. Our reliance on TV personalities as a surrogate family, and our inability to separate fact from fiction. To believe uncritically in what we are shown. And to get a vicarious, voyeuristic thrill from what we watch.
But we didn’t get the chance.
The BBC swiftly gagged us in the face of a torrent of criticism, and the programme was buried forever in the BBC vaults, never to be repeated. The dictat even went out that it should never be mentioned in any other BBC programme, ever.
So far, so Stalinist.
But not very surprising. The BBC, like all institutions, is primarily interested in its own self-preservation. Support of its creative staff, we found, comes very low down the list of corporate priorities.
Even so, I think it is true to say, my Halloween has never been the same since.
With the British Film Institute bringing out a DVD of Ghostwatch in 2002 for its tenth anniversary, we found out to our astonishment and delight that not everybody hated Ghostwatch. Far from it.
In fact, there were thousands of fans – less vocal than the green ink brigade – who had prized it all along as one of the most riveting and life changing viewing experiences of their lives.
I know this because they told us about it, eager to share their memories.
They arranged screenings. Often at Halloween. Often coming in costume. Reliving the thrill and fun of seeing the apples bobbing and extras dressed as devils and witches. Chuckling as Parkinson introduces the show:
“No creaking gates, no gothic towers. No shuttered windows. Yet for the past ten months this house has been the focus for an unprecedented barrage of supernatural activity. This footage was shot by parapsychologists investigating the case. You are about to see one of the incidents that have earned the house in Foxhill Drive an unenviable reputation as Britain’s most haunted house….”
They loved it.
And to those of us who had actually made the thing, that was unbelievably touching.
Blogs, discussions and interviews about the show have become so plentiful as to be difficult to keep track of. And invitations to do a Q&A at screenings keep on coming, thick and fast. Usually clustered around that very special, spooky time of year we all know and love.
Yes, for my sins, now, I can honestly say Ghostwatch has become a Halloween fixture. As much part of the furniture of that whole capitalist frightfest as grinning pumpkin heads and monster masks.
And I’m inordinately proud of that.
It’s pretty cool that a single, 90-minute TV programme transmitted on one night only and never repeated, is remembered almost 30 years later, and remembered mostly positively by a massive cohort of horror fans.
Fans who sometimes come up to me and say “You know, Ghostwatch was the best thing I ever saw on TV. It changed my life, got me interested in horror, and now I’m making horror films of my own.”
For me there can be no greater reward than this. To pass on the baton.
When Rob Savage, director of the internet sensation of 2020, Host, told me Ghostwatch was his biggest inspiration, my heart swelled with pride.
Sometimes I want to draw the line under it. I’ve written many things since after all – half a dozen feature films, including The Awakening, and I’ve created and been lead writer on television series such as Afterlife– as well as being the author of books such as The Dark Masters Trilogy.
But I’m reconciled to the fact that when I turn up my toes the headline will be “Ghostwatch Man Dies”. Ah, well.
It’s not a bad legacy, and, I hope, a little bit of Halloween horror history.
Watch it if you can find it. Preferably on Halloween night. Preferably with friends.
Turn the lights down, imagine yourself watching it back in 1992, unaware that it’s fake from beginning to end. And above all:
In 1870s Paris, long before meeting his Dr Watson, the young man who will one day become the world’s greatest detective finds himself plunged into a mystery that will change his life forever.
A brilliant man—C. Auguste Dupin—steps from the shadows. Destined to become his mentor. Soon to introduce him to a world of ghastly crime and seemingly inexplicable horrors.
The spectral tormentor that is being called, in hushed tones, The Phantom of the Opera . . . The sinister old man who visits corpses in the Paris morgue . . . An incarcerated lunatic who insists she is visited by creatures from the Moon . . . A hunchback discovered in the bell tower of Notre Dame . . . And—perhaps most shocking of all—the awful secret Dupin himself hides from the world. Tales of Mystery, Imagination, and Terror
Investigated in the company of the darkest master of all.
The Dark Master’s Trilogy — Whitstable – 1971. Peter Cushing, grief-stricken over the loss of his wife and soul-mate, is walking along a beach near his home. A little boy approaches him, taking him to be the famous vampire-hunter Van Helsing from the Hammer films, begs for his expert help…
Leytonstone – 1906. Young Alfred Hitchcock is taken by his father to visit the local police station. There he suddenly finds himself, inexplicably, locked up for a crime he knows nothing about – the catalyst for a series of events that will scar, and create, the world’s leading Master of Terror…
Netherwood – 1947. Best-selling black magic novelist Dennis Wheatley finds himself summoned mysteriously to the aid of Aleister Crowley – mystic, reprobate, The Great Beast 666, and dubbed by the press ‘The Wickedest Man in the World’ – to help combat a force of genuine evil…
The Little Gift — The nocturnal scampering invariably signals death. I try to shut it out. The cat might be chasing a scrap of paper or a ball of silver foil across the bare floorboards downstairs, say a discarded chocolate wrapper courtesy of my wife, who likes providing it with impromptu playthings. I tell myself it isn’t necessarily toying with something living, but my stomach tightens.
The Parts We Play — An illusionist preparing his latest, most audacious trick… A movie fan hiding from a totalitarian regime… A pop singer created with the perfect ingredients for stardom… A folklorist determined to catch a supernatural entity on tape… A dead child appearing to her mother in the middle of a supermarket aisle… A man who breaks the ultimate taboo—but does that make him a monster?
In this rich and varied collection of Stephen Volk’s best fiction to date, characters seek to be the people they need to be, jostled by hope, fears, responsibility, fate, and their own inner demons—and desires. These tales of the lies and lives we live and the pasts we can’t forget include the British Fantasy Award-winning novella, Newspaper Heart.
“Trick or Treat.” Sidney repeated the words, then pointed to Meikare. Teaching the Amawaka boy bits of English helped pass the time. Even the Brazilian rainforest got tedious after a month of daylong marches.
Meikare grinned but said nothing.
“Come on, kid. You’re going to like this.” Sidney pulled a fun-sized Snickers bar from the pocket of his cargo shorts.
Meikare reached for the candy, but Sidney closed his hand.
“Trick or treat,” he repeated.
The ten-year-old’s grin straightened into a hard line. His hand blurred, drawing the machete that hung at his waist.
“Whoa.” Sidney stepped back, dropping the candy into the grass.
The boy shoved against him. Sidney, already unbalanced, fell to the ground. Meikare brought the machete around in a vicious arc, neatly beheading a long, striped snake. The snake’s fangs bit convulsively at the empty air.
Meikare knelt and picked up the fallen Snickers bar, handing it back to Sidney. “Trickertreat?”
“I’m going to give your grandson a Snickers bar,” Sidney said. “It has nuts in it.” Were nut allergies even a thing down here?
Oket regarded Sidney with disinterest.
“And he killed a snake.”
The guide nodded and turned his attention back to the supplies.
“Okay then.” Sidney handed over the treat, smiling as Meikare shoved the chocolate into his mouth. “Happy Halloween, kid.” He stood and stretched. Sweat rolling down his skin. October 31st should not be this damned hot. Sidney wished he were back in Pittsburgh.
Truth be told, he wished he’d never come. This was supposed to be an adventure.
“You go in under the radar. You and one guide,” the company rep had said. “You verify the mineral deposits, do some sightseeing, and there’s a big fat paycheck waiting when you get back. A lot more than you make teaching geology.”
Sure, the whole thing was a bit hinky. The indigenous zone was off limits to mining. But Sidney wasn’t mining. Just scouting and taking samples where Nav-Corp was already sure the rare earth deposits would be. Besides, weren’t adventures supposed to be a bit hinky?
It turned out Sidney didn’t much like adventure. The rainforest was mostly mosquitoes and humidity. And the mineral deposits were not such sure things after all. To top it off, they were a week and a half behind schedule, and he was missing his favorite holiday, Halloween.
Oket drew his own machete “We go,” he said. The guide spoke English but was so taciturn it hardly mattered. This strong-silent act had been why Sidney hired the man. The other guides had bragged. Oket simply said, “This is my world. You listen. I keep you alive.”
They had a system. Oket walked ahead to scout the best route and get rid of any immediate dangers. A few minutes later, Meikare would follow, babysitting the soft American. Sidney had to admit he liked the arrangement. Despite his early misgivings about Oket’s grandson coming along, he soon realized he preferred the boy’s company to the old man’s.
Meikare spoke almost no English but had the decency to smile and nod a lot. “Trickertreat?” the boy asked.
“Maybe later, kid.”
“Okay.” Okay was the first word Meikare had learned, and he used it often.
Sidney figured they would hike a few hours before Oket doubled back and called out “We sleep” or “We eat.” So, to pass the time, he talked about home. “Back in my world, it’s cold in October. The leaves turn colors, and you rake them up into piles and jump in them.”
Meikare nodded and smiled.
“On Halloween, people give out candy by the pound. As long as you’re dressed up and know the magic words.”
They reached the top of a rise and paused for breath. A narrow valley spread out below them. Within the green expanse, Sidney spotted a burst of red and gold. He blinked, waiting for the colors to resolve into some flowering tree or maybe a flock of exotic birds. “That’s an oak tree,” he finally said. “And the leaves are changing.” Sidney really couldn’t be sure. The tree was pretty far away. But the shape and color seemed right. “That’s impossible.” Or maybe not. Sidney was no botany expert. He only knew it looked like home.
He tapped Meikare on the shoulder and pointed toward the colored leaves.
“Okay,” the boy said.
“We go,” said Sidney, pointing again.
Sidney could see the boy wanted to run ahead and ask his grandfather. Oket would scowl and turn back to his chosen route. If Sidney argued, Oket would simply answer, “I keep you alive.”
This is ridiculous, Sidney thought. I paid good money for a guide; shouldn’t he take me where I want to go? Then inspiration struck. “Trick or treat?” he asked, and patted his pocket.
“Trickertreat okay,” said Meikare.
Sidney pointed toward the tree again. “We go there, then trick or treat.” Suddenly, going to that tree was all Sidney wanted. To stand under branches full of fall leaves and perform the ancient ritual of Trick-or-Treat with his last two snickers. A little taste of home.
Meikare hesitated, but the lure of chocolate proved too much.
The forest thickened as they moved downhill, swinging their machetes. Sidney expected Oket’s harsh voice at any moment, but it never came. Abruptly, there was nothing left to cut. They stepped into a clearing. It wasn’t large, only twenty yards or so. In the center stood Sidney’s tree. It was perfect. Pure Norman Rockwell. Red-gold leaves hung from the tree limbs, practically glowing in the afternoon sunlight. More formed a circular carpet beneath the spreading branches.
Sidney stared, a dopey grin on his face.
Meikare pulled on his sleeve hard enough to make Sidney take a step back. The boy pointed up the hill and tugged again. He looked unhappy. “We Go.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell Oket I made you come. I wanted you to see this. It’s what I was talking about. Halloween.” He said the word again, pointing at the tree. “Halloween.”
“Trick or Treat?” asked Meikare.
They ate the last candy bars while looking at the tree that shouldn’t be there. Meikare licked chocolate from his fingers and turned back to the path.
Sidney knew he should follow, but he was not quite finished with his little miracle. With a whoop, he ran to the carpet of leaves, kicking them high in the air. Surrounding himself in a shower of red and gold. Leaves swooped and twirled. But they did not fall.
More leaves rose from the ground, arching themselves through the air. Beneath them lay a second carpet. This one of bones. A leaf landed on top of Sidney’s hand. He felt a pinch, like a doctor’s needle. He grabbed the leaf, crushing it. The thing was leathery. Its body cracked as Sidney squeezed. He tossed it to the ground. The top of his hand welled blood. Two more of the leathery things dove onto the wound. Another landed on his cheek, biting.
Sidney flailed, scraping the creatures off as fast as he could. More bites stung his arms and legs.
Meikare stood frozen at the forest’s edge, his eyes wide, mouth still rimmed with chocolate. Sidney moved toward the boy. He had made a mistake, that’s all. He had forgotten this wasn’t his world. This was Oket’s world and Meikare’s. If he could get back to them, they would know what to do. They would save him.
He stumbled forward one-step, two. Shrill cries rent the air like a children’s choir gone mad. Sidney looked up at the thousands of reddish-gold shapes hanging from the branches above him. No. Not hanging, Sidney realized. The things above him crouched, waiting for prey. Waiting for me. They burst from the branches then, filling the air. Shrieking as they came. Red and gold shapes poured over Sidney. Tiny needle-sharp teeth tearing flesh, draining away his life sip by sip.
Meikare ran. Tears half-blinding him as he stumbled through the forest. He found his grandfather, grim-faced with anger at the top of the hill. The boy dragged the old man down to the clearing, but they were too late. All was quiet now. The leaf things once again hung unmoving in the branches. Where Sidney had last stood lay a mound of leaves, more red than gold, rising from the forest floor as if raked up and ready to be jumped in.
Meikare knew his forest home could kill. His grandfather had taught him to avoid a thousand dangers. And more importantly, that there were always more to learn. Now, it was Meikare’s turn to teach his grandfather about this new threat. He even had a name for it. The one his American friend had taught him. He pointed to the beautiful tree whose leaves bit and killed and pronounced the word with slow precision. “Halloween.”
Frank Oreto writes in deepest darkest Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His stories have appeared or are upcoming at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Pseudopod, and the Corpus Press anthology series In Darkness Delight amongst many others. When not telling lies and writing them down, Frank spends his time creating elaborate meals for his wife and ever-hungering children. You can follow his exploits, both culinary and literally, on Twitter and at his Facebook page.
It’s that time of year again. Summer has come to an end, the days are getting shorter, and the color orange is starting to saturate our world of capitalistic vice and consumption. There’s pumpkin spice, well, everything and the general cozy feeling that comes with the season, and then we have the people who are annoyed with the deliriously evangelical followers of the autumnal cult of joy. Fall is the favorite season of many, and the favorite punching bag of others. Personally, I’m a big fan of the season and the mood it sets. I haven’t even touched on the best day of the season, in my opinion at least: Halloween.
I sit pretty comfortably in the opinion that Halloween is one of the best holidays. I’m not even close to being alone in that belief. In 2019, almost 70% of Americans celebrated Halloween. It dropped a bit in 2020 and looks like the downward trend may continue this year, thanks to the pandemic. But still, more than half of Americans, pandemic or not, are going to be indulging in the spooky, in the morbid, and in the deliciously decadent delights that horror can give. Children and adults alike love Halloween. Horror fans and otherwise love Halloween. The love of Halloween spans various belief systems and religions. How is this so? Why is Halloween such a hit?
I think that it has a lot to do with the fact that it happens at the end of October, just as fall is getting into full swing. Like Christmas, we start celebrating Halloween before the actual day with trips to pop-up stores for new costumes and goodies for our homes, visiting haunted houses and hay rides, and scary movies play on the television every night. Summer is the season that we spend mostly out of our homes, away on vacations and with school being out, mostly on a relaxed or nonexistent schedule. Fall begins with school going back into session, the return to routine and to the end of the vacation season. We’re home, we’re settling in, we’re getting cozy, and we get to do that as the lush beauty of nature prepares to wow us one last time. In the autumnal season, nature proves that she saves the best for last. The sweet smell of dead leaves and their lovely crunch under our feet as we walk, it romances us. Death woos and charms us. Pumpkins start appearing everywhere, flanked by decorative baskets of chrysanthemums. But alongside that magazine-cover pretty picture, there are skeletons, spiders, black cats, corpses, vampires, bats…all of the ambassadors of the decidedly spooky. And they go together wonderfully. I put a seven-foot werewolf on my front porch, but I’ve also got mums and pumpkins. I put out a small cemetery in my side yard with zombies and skeletons climbing out of the graves, but they’re surrounded by beautiful falling leaves from the large tree. The beauty of nature’s death pairs nicely with the human macabre.
Halloween also has the distinguished position of being a holiday that normally doesn’t come with family obligations. Every season comes with a holiday that carries some sort of requirement that can stress us out. Halloween has no such demand. It stands as one of the special days on the calendar that is set aside purely for fun. Obligations are minimal, usually, and having to eat a big dinner next to your judgmental aunt is still at least a month away. Halloween is so much more casual. I know the history of Halloween and I know the pagan-held beliefs of the day, but it has become a day of laughter, fun, sweets, and ridiculousness. It has a few songs, it has a lot of movies, and it has costumes. Halloween is an absolute delight, and I know that I start looking forward to it every August. I sometimes hold out through September before bringing out my spooky and corny decorations, and sometimes I don’t. But, at the very least, the month of October is dedicated to Halloween in my house. My giant porch werewolf and the many other outdoor decorations pale in comparison to what I have inside of my house. A disassembled skeleton hangs from my dining room chandelier, I drink my coffee from Halloween mugs and have my evening tipple in Halloween glasses. For crying out loud, I have Halloween bedding and bathroom hand towels! I love every stitch of it. All of it.
The U.S. is an enormous country with many different regions and not all of them necessarily have four seasons, and yet, they still celebrate Halloween. I live in Eastern Pennsylvania where we certainly experience the full four seasons, but Halloween is pervasive in this country of ours regardless of whether autumn happens or not. Again, why? I’m not an academic and I have no deep philosophical answer for you. What I do have is my observation, and my knowledge of both your average person and the horror community. Halloween is popular because it’s fun. Being scared is fun. Horror carries a stigma of being sick and taboo, and yet I rarely meet a person who doesn’t have a favorite scary movie. People tell me all the time that they don’t like horror, but they love Halloween. Yes, it’s the day for the horror-lovers, but it’s also the day for the “normies” to take a walk on the spooky side and it turns out, they have just as much fun as us horror folk. It’s fun! That’s not a deep answer, but it is an obvious one, and a truthful one.
So, if you’re like more than half of us and celebrating Halloween, enjoy it. Have the fun. Watch the movies, eat the treats, put up the decorations, and do it with people that enjoy it as much as you. Do a Halloween night recitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and eat some apple dumplings. But could you do this horror author a favor? Pick up a scary book from an author you’ve never read. Give a smaller name a chance. Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree is a terrific book and everything by Stephen King can be appropriate at this time of year. But there are so many horror authors out there who are putting out works that will surprise you with the imaginative takes and amazing storytelling and it’s a shame to only read the biggest names, or only a few names. Try something new, someone new, and allow yourself to be surprised and delighted. After all, ‘tis the season!
I’ll start you off. I’ll throw some authors at you, and you pick what thrills you most.
If you like it spicy and want your horror a little sexy, check out Sephera Giron and Jessica McHugh. But don’t be fooled by the erotic bent of these works, they are every bit as brutal and horrifying as any other horror book, just with an added bonus.
Do you like horror that doesn’t really fit into a category but can be emotional and somehow beautiful? Robert Ford and John Boden belong on your shelves, then.
Grab a short story collection from a new author. As a reader, I find the best authors out there put together amazing short story collections. Most of the authors I mention here have short story collections in their bibliography. Also, try one of Matt Wildasin’s Horrors Untold volumes. They’re wonderful and varied fun.
I’m barely scratching the surface here, and could spend all day pointing you to terrific authors, but if you start here, and do a little digging of your own, I guarantee you’ll find your new favorite author. Happy Halloween!
Somer Canon lives in Eastern PA with her husband, two sons, and three cats. She loves to read and write and although she is polyamorous when it comes to genres, horror always seems to be her favorite.
Boneyard — Halloween is a night of spooky fun…at least it is for the living. What about the dead? What kind of fun do they have? Read and find out how the no-longer-living entertain themselves at the expense of very much alive and disrespectful people!
A Fresh Start — Still hurting from her divorce, Melissa Caan makes a drastic life change for herself and her two young children by moving them out to a rural home.But the country life came with some extras that she wasn’t counting on. Doors are slamming, she and her children are violently attacked by unseen hands, and her elderly neighbor doesn’t like to talk about the murders that happened in the strangely named hollow all those years ago.Ghost hunters, witches, and a sassy cancer survivor come together to help Melissa fight for the safety of her children and herself.All she wanted was a fresh start, will she get it?
Slaves to Gravity (with Wesley Southard) — After waking up in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the waist down, Charlie Snyder had no idea where life would take her. Dejected, broken, and permanently bound to a wheelchair, she believed her life was truly over. That is…until gravity no longer applied.It started out slow. Floating from room to room. Menial tasks without assistance. When she decided to venture outside and take some real risks with her newfound ability, she rose above her own constraints to reveal a whole new world, and found other damaged individuals just like her to confide in.But there are other things out there, waiting in the dark. Repulsive, secretive creatures that don’t want Charlie to touch the sky. And they’ll stop at nothing to keep her on the ground.
Erika Fisher swore she could still smell fire somewhere nearby. Fire, and charred flesh. In the parking lot of Smith County High, police lights flashed red and blue, making the night look strange and otherworldly. The night of her junior prom needed no help being either. She was seated on a concrete bench, next to the bike rack. A pudgy, baldheaded officer whose badge said his name was Kurtz stood over her, frowning at his notepad and pinching a pen he’d gotten from Greener Pastures Baptist Church. Radio chatter hissed and crackled on his CB.
“And you’ve never seen this guy before?” he asked again. “You’re sure about this?”
“No, I’ve never seen him before.” She let out a grim sigh. “And yes, I’m sure.”
“And he just … what? Waltzed into the auditorium, started dancing with your friend, and then they just … what? Vanished?”
She chewed her lip and stared at her glittery shoes. The police strobes gave the illusion they were burning.
“Vanished is the wrong word,” she said. “It wasn’t … into thin air or anything.”
The corner of his mouth twitched up.
“Right, it was like what? Their feet started a fire and it just consumed them.”
“Look, I know how it sounds. You don’t have to tell me it sounds crazy.”
“You’re sure she and this boy didn’t just run off together and…”
“And now I’m covering for them?”
“You said it, not me.”
“I guess that’s why I’m so upset. Right, Officer?”
“Don’t get smart with me, girl. If I had half a mind, I’d put you away for obstruction of justice.”
She blew out another breath. She tried not to think of Danielle’s face in those final moments. It was contorted in some awful marriage of fear and pain. And that boy, that gorgeous, dark-eyed boy had been grinning so wide, she thought his cheeks might split open and reveal all his teeth.
“Now, is there anything else you can think of? Anything at all you think might help us find your friend and this mystery boy?”
“I’ve told you all I know.” She put her head in her hands but did not close her eyes. She feared if she did, that boy would be standing there when she opened them instead of this cop. Or even Danielle, which would be somehow worse. “Not like you’d believe me anyway.”
“It’s not my job to believe or not believe,” he said, as if he hadn’t been condescending to her the entire time. “I just have to turn in my reports and bust scumbags. Now, are you sure there’s nothing else?”
“There’s nothing else. Does this mean I can go home?”
He pressed his lips together. She thought he meant to admonish her again. Instead, he handed her a business card.
“You think of anything else, you call me. I or a detective may call you if we have additional questions. Your parents picking you up tonight?” Erika nodded. “You better give them a call. Let them know the prom ended early.”
He smirked again walked to a cluster of officers standing in a semicircle.
And he says I’m the smartass.
Erika dug her phone out of her clutch and called her mother.
On the way back, Erika told her mother everything. The woman who hadn’t birthed her but had raised her just the same said nothing, only listened. Dark as it was inside the car, Erika could see her getting paler after every sentence. Erika finished the story and asked what her mother thought. She took so long to answer, Erika thought she might not have heard the question. Before she could repeat it, her mother began to speak.
“That’s almost word-for-word an old Texas folktale,” she said. “Supposedly, in the 1950s or so, a girl about your age was forbidden from going to a dance because a preacher told her mama it was for the devil. Of course, she snuck out anyway and at the dance, she met this gorgeous stranger. He danced with her, spinning her round and round until the earth opened up and sucked her down to Hell. The stranger was the devil.”
“Yeah, but mine really happened,” she said.
Her mother looked at her. Exhaustion had darkened the skin beneath her eyes.
“But you agree the stories are very similar, yes?”
“So, maybe you heard it before and…”
“And what? Imagined the whole thing? Other people were there, Mom. Other people saw it.”
Her mother pressed her lips together. A muscle worked in her jaw.
“I love you, Erika Marie. I just want you to be honest with me. You can tell me anything. I promise.”
“Yeah, Mom,” Erika said and rested her head against the cool window.
She watched the trees go by along the dark country road. She wondered if it was dark where Danielle was.
That night, when she came home, she got undressed and turned off the light. Though she harbored no delusions that she’d be able to sleep, she decided to at least try. She lay down on her bed. Moonlight shone through her window. On most nights, she thought the silver-blue illumination was pretty and comforting. This was not most nights. With her curtains parted, it was all too easy to imagine the mysterious boy levitating up the side of her house and peering through her window with those obsidian eyes of his. Smiling that smile that looked like it’d split open his cheeks.
Erika closed the curtains. The moonlight backlit them. The shadows of the still somewhat bare tree branches danced like skeletons under some bizarre resurrection spell. She expected the shadow of the boy to rise up and join them. To reach through her window and its curtains. To take her dancing, like he’d taken Danielle. She turned onto her side and faced the wall. Her Luke Bryan poster was unrecognizable in the dimness. She felt no safer.
As she lay in bed not sleeping, she remembered meeting Danielle for the first time.
Back in freshman year, Danielle had transferred in after her parents joined the ever-growing ranks of mass shooting victims. Danielle had almost joined those ranks herself. One afternoon, her family had gone to a Sonic for frozen cherry lemonades. While they waited, a man opened fire on every car in the lot. Danielle had managed to escape into the nearby woods with a boy from another vehicle.
He’d lost his parents in the massacre too. Danielle told Erika that she developed an intense attraction to the boy, not like a crush or anything, just an intense need to be around him as much as possible. They’d been through this terrible thing together. They were the only survivors, other than a couple of fry-cooks and a car hop who’d all hidden inside when the killer opened fire. This shared experience had created an intense, psychic bond between them. Danielle worried she would never fully heal from the experience without him. Unfortunately for her, the death of her parents put her in the care of her aunt and uncle who lived in Tyler. She didn’t know where the boy was sent.
“But you seem sweet,” she’d said to Erika.
Erika gave her a hug then, said she was sorry all that horrible stuff had happened.
Even at her young age, Erika found it a little weird for someone to give away such an intense, personal story to a total stranger. More than that though, she felt a responsibility to show love and compassion to the new girl. At that time, she’d already started to question, and in some cases outright reject, the religiosity her mother had attempted to instill. Heaven and Hell, angels, Jonah getting swallowed by a whale and living to talk about it, men rising from the dead; it all felt like fairy tale stuff to her. Metaphors in the best cases. Propaganda in the worst.
What stuck were the tenets of loving strangers and caring for those who suffered.
When she’d given Danielle that hug and expressed regret for the new girl’s family tragedy, she still thought of these behaviors as Christian love in action. Looking back now, it just seemed like basic human decency. Whether divinely-inspired love or secular humanism at its finest, it hadn’t been enough to save Danielle Prescott. That girl had a shadow over her. Maybe the shooting deaths of her parents had brought it. Maybe it was older than that. Whatever its origin, whatever its age, it’d finally caught up to her.
“You believe they’re calling this a regular kidnapping?” Bobby Kirsch said the Monday after.
They were standing behind the same auditorium where it’d happened. School was in session but they’d gone around the side of the building so he could vape while they talked. She was usually careful about not putting herself in situations which could land her in trouble. Today, she didn’t care about suspension or fines. She just needed to share her grief with someone who’d also loved Danielle.
For Erika, the weekend had been weirdly normal. Shopping trips with Mom. Morning jogs. Homework. A lot of denial. She slept probably more than was healthy, but she didn’t care, and Mom let her do it.
Bobby sucked furiously on his vape pen. His face tightened and went red. To Erika, it looked like he just couldn’t get enough of a hit to take him away from whatever he was feeling. He’d dated Danielle a little bit, back in the fall. It hadn’t worked out, but he’d tried more than once to get her back. He’d even threatened to knock out the gorgeous stranger in a jealous rage earlier that night, but Erika had stopped him. She bet he wished he hadn’t listened to her. She sure wished she’d just let him do it. Maybe things would have gone differently.
“They’re acting like that shit we all fucking saw was some kind of mass hysteria.” He took another drag and shook his head as he coughed out a plume of cherry-scented smoke. “That was some devil shit.”
Bobby was still pretty religious, but it didn’t stop him from vaping or talking like a sailor. Erika nodded here and there throughout his tirade. He was saying everything she was feeling. In spite of this, she couldn’t help but tune him out. She couldn’t help feeling like his tough talk was some effort on his part to make this all about him. Maybe she wasn’t being fair. Her mother had offered to let her stay home for a few days. Ultimately, Erika decided it’d be better to be with friends. She probably should’ve taken her mother up on the offer.
School turned out to be every bit the nightmare she’d feared it might be.
During every class, her gaze drifted to the seats where Danielle usually sat. She daydreamed about the strange way her friend had been taken. The awful expression on her face. The grinning stranger who’d made her go up in flames with him. Danielle’s story about the massacre she’d survived with some strange boy. At lunch, she couldn’t eat. Between classes, she tried not to hear the other kids talk about what happened, spinning ridiculous theories, and telling outright lies about what kind of person Danielle had been. They said she was into drugs, sex with older men, and had even known the shooter who’d killed her parents and all those people at the Sonic. None of it was true. All of it pissed Erika off.
When she came home to an empty house, she rushed upstairs and collapsed on her bed. She tried to cry but no tears came. She seldom cried anymore. Some days, she thought she’d run out of tears. Other days, she thought she was saving them for a time she’d really need them. If the latter was true, she couldn’t imagine something that could make her feel worse than how she felt now.
She went to visit Danielle’s Aunt and Uncle after she tried and failed to do her homework. On her way there, she remembered Bobby’s words. Mass hysteria. No wonder that pissed him off. It was an insulting suggestion and unfortunately all too typical when it came to how the locals viewed the young: like lost sheep susceptible to all manner of deception, satanic or otherwise.
She parked her bike in the patchy lawn and walked to the door. As if he’d been watching for her, Danielle’s Uncle Horatio answered before she even had the chance to knock. His steely gaze kept her from coming in. Not only was it intimidating, it caught her off-guard. He’d always been kind to her in the past. Danielle had even said he liked her, so why the cold stare now?
“H-hi, Mr. Prescott,” she said. “I wanted to check in with y’all. Can I come in?”
He narrowed his eyes, and it made his expression even less welcoming.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, let the poor girl come in,” Danielle’s Aunt Stella called from further back in the house. “Winter’s not over and she rode all the way over here.”
It was only a mile, but Erika appreciated the sentiment.
Horatio opened the door wider and stepped aside. The house smelled like cinnamon. It made her nostalgic for happier times, even if happy was sometimes a weird way to describe any time spent with Danielle. She did have a light side, of course. Everybody did. For Danielle, it shone most prominently when she and Erika were riding bikes together. Or when she was dancing to X Ambassadors or Walk the Moon. She often looked so radiant when dancing, her end seemed all the more bitter.
Though Horatio didn’t slam the door, it sounded overwhelmingly loud as it closed behind Erika. Stella came out to meet her. Her eyes were dry but red. She wore periwinkle pajamas and her hair was unkempt.
“Erika,” she said, holding out her arms. They felt frail and brittle around Erika. She smelled stuffy and dry, like she’d just gotten out of bed.
They sat down in the living room and Stella put on water for tea. Horatio sat alone on a dusty recliner, scowling at Erika. She and Stella sat on opposite ends of a worn, leather sofa. For almost a minute and a half, no one said anything. Erika licked her lips.
“Um, have you heard anything from the police?” she asked.
“No,” Stella said. “Not a word.”
“Of course not,” Horatio said. “She vanished into thin air.”
He said it with bitter disdain. His scowl deepened.
“That’s not what I said. I said…”
He coughed out a dry laugh. “She went up in flames.”
“Honey…” Stella said.
“I know you’re covering for her. Her and that boy ran off together.”
“I’m not, Mr. Prescott. I’ve never seen that boy in my life. If she planned to run away with a boy, I’d know who he was. We were close.”
“Maybe you two weren’t as close as you think.” He focused his attention on his wife. “Everyone has secrets.”
Stella looked down and away.
“Maybe I should go,” Erika said.
“Maybe you should.”
The tea kettle whistled and broke the tension. Stella bolted up and walked quickly to the kitchen. While she grabbed mugs and saucers, Erika tried to look anywhere but at Horatio. Family photos, a dark TV screen, a painting of Jesus, a framed Texas flag and a shelf of porcelain clowns.
Everyone has secrets. The statement played on repeat in her mind. She knew Danielle had secrets. Those secrets were part of what had made her so intriguing. Every day with her was a revelation.
Stella came back with a tray full of steaming teacups.
“That boy,” she said. “What did he look like?”
Horatio’s cheeks flushed pink.
“He had thick, dark hair, purplish-black, like a raven’s. Dark eyes. He was tall and well-built and very pale. His skin reminded me of the moon.”
“Did he have a scar?” Stella pointed to her left eyebrow.
Erika tried to remember. The lighting hadn’t been great in the auditorium. She closed her eyes and pictured the boy’s face. All she could see was that awful, cheek-splitting smile. She made herself remember his eyes. Above the left one, sure enough, he’d had an X-shaped scar. She nodded.
Stella looked at Horatio. Her eyes were wide and soft.
“It’s him,” she said.
“Who?” Erika asked, though she had a feeling she knew.
“The boy she wouldn’t stop talking about after…”
“The one who escaped with her.”
Stella slowly shook her head. Horatio pressed his fingers to his temples like he had a mean migraine coming on.
“Erika,” Stella said. “No one but Danielle survived that day.”
Erika rode home, her entire body knotted with tension. Stella’s revelation repeated in her head like a hypnotist’s mantra. When she got back to her room, she called Bobby.
“Erika?” he said.
She understood his uncertainty. Though she’d texted him a couple of times when he and Danielle were dating, she never called him, back then or any other time before now.
“We need to talk,” she said. “Can I come over?”
He didn’t live as far as Danielle had, so she walked. When he answered the door, he was holding two bottles of Miller High Life. His parents let him drink, so long as he did so in their house and not out where he could get into trouble. Erika imagined he’d taken full advantage of this freedom over the past few days. He offered a bottle to her. She shook her head. They went inside and sat in the kitchen.
“So, what’s up?” he asked.
She told him. With every sentence, his eyes grew wider. He chugged the first beer and started on the second. When she finished, he shook his head.
“Like I said, some devil shit, man.”
“Maybe. Whoever he is, do you know why he came back to her?”
He took another long pull of beer. Finished nearly half the second bottle in one swallow. Then he got up and went into the other room. He returned with an envelope and tossed it at her. She unsealed it and pulled out its contents. It was a photo. A gray image, the shape of an enlarged lima bean, sat against an all-black background. It was an ultrasound image. She could feel her eyes stretch wide. She met Bobby’s gaze. His bottom lip trembled.
“She couldn’t get an abortion.”
“The baby was yours?”
His face darkened and he nodded.
“You were okay with her getting one?”
He chewed his lip and looked away.
“I mean, not really,” he said. “But … Well, she and I weren’t ready to be parents. We’re just kids. I think … I hope God would understand.”
She thought for a second.
“Is that why you were so aggressive the other night? She was carrying your kid and here was this gorgeous stranger, sweeping her off her feet.”
“Well, yeah. I was feeling … protective. Then you stopped me, and I went to go sulk in the corner, wishing the punch was spiked with something that could make me forget.”
“The police probably think it was.” She shook her head. “Mass hysteria. Pigs.”
“Ah, you don’t have to be like that.”
“Maybe not. I guess I’m still mad about how the one condescended to me.”
“Well, some of them can be pigs. That’s for sure.”
“Especially in this town.”
“Amen, girl.” He finished his second beer. Went to the fridge for a third. “Anyway, no doctor in town would help her. I thought about taking her out of state but neither of us had a license yet. I could’ve borrowed dad’s truck, but honestly, he’d kill me if he found out I knocked up a girl. Especially Danielle. He never liked her.”
“Did her aunt and uncle know? About the baby, I mean.”
“No. She didn’t want them to know. Didn’t think they’d be any help.”
Erika remembered Horatio’s scowl earlier that afternoon. No, she didn’t suppose they would’ve been any help.
“So, what does all this mean?” she asked.
“Like I said, devil shit. He helped her survive that shooting. I bet she asked him to help her out again. Not sure whatever she could’ve offered him though if he already had dibs on her soul.”
“You really believe that.” She didn’t pose it as a question.
“How could I not? They hardwire that shit into you from birth in this town.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s true though.”
“I guess not. Hard to rewire it. Hard as hell.”
“So, the devil took her. That’s that?”
He laughed then but it lacked humor. It was almost a sob. She didn’t think she could handle it if he started crying. Not that she expected to cry herself but still. It’d be too much to see. If she had lost all her tears or was storing them for something that was somehow worse than watching her friend go up in flames, how could he still cry?
“I guess…” He drifted off and tightened his expression. “I guess I like to think he took her somewhere she could free herself. Not just of our child but of this town, even of me. I like to think wherever she is, she’s happy. That she’s somehow made peace with all she’s been through. Most of all, I hope she’s alive and I hope she repents. Maybe if she prays hard enough, her soul…”
He sounded uncertain of himself. She didn’t know if he doubted what he hoped for the mother of his unborn child or if he doubted everything he thought he knew, all the things his parents and preachers and teachers had programmed into his brain since birth.
Erika took Bobby’s hand, gave it a squeeze, and left him to cry into his beer.
She didn’t even bother trying to start her homework. Instead, she sat in her room, staring out the window at the tree. A few more leaves had begun to bud on its branches. Occasionally, she checked Instagram and absently LIKED photos of dogs and good-looking girls. She thought about recording an Insta-story, some kind of tribute to Danielle. But if she did that, she feared it would confirm, once and for all, that her friend was lost forever. Dead, dragged to hell, or simply gone, without a trace, never to return. She wasn’t ready to accept that. Didn’t think she ever would be, even if they found Danielle’s charred remains tomorrow, and had a funeral sometime in the middle of the week. Danielle would live on somehow, someway. Erika was too young for people her age to start dying.
On that note, she realized just how tired she actually was. She texted her mother to say she’d be skipping dinner, and willed herself to dream of Danielle, somewhere else in the country, but safe and happy. At first, she imagined the mystery boy at her friend’s side but then she decided he was best relegated to being no more than a bad dream.
She imagined her friend deciding to keep the baby, but wandering the highways like some cowgirl samurai, drifting town to town and finding odd jobs to keep her and the baby fed and sheltered. It was nice to think about and it helped her sleep, peacefully this time.
Erika got her driver’s license that summer. She went driving a lot, mostly alone. Though Tyler itself was some bizarre marriage of a working-class suburbia and some kind of skyscraperless inner-city, many winding country roads cut through the surrounding rural areas. It was easy to get lost, even with the best GPS technology. She liked to drive aimlessly and while she physically seldom got lost, she often wandered the remote acres of her mind.
She’d finally allowed herself to accept that whether Danielle was dead or alive, she’d likely never see her again. Sometimes, it still made her sad. She often felt a sickening emptiness, but she never cried. She just drove.
She drove these country roads, blasting country music and letting her thoughts run free. She thought of Danielle the wanderer, Danielle the dead girl, Danielle the damned. She thought of Bobby sobbing into a Miller High Life. She thought of the way Horatio Prescott scowled at her. How Stella Prescott smelled stuffy and dry. The condescending smirk of Officer Kurtz. The way everything smelled like fire that night. How she sometimes smelled fire when she walked outside. Or when she was trying to sleep. Or when she was driving.
Like now. At night. Not intoxicated. She never drove drunk. She was one of the few kids in her class on which the fear-mongering, if well-intended, PSAs had worked. Instead, she downed mug after mug of black coffee. She liked to feel it surge through her veins as she rounded sharp curves. As lights from homes appeared scattered far and wide and the stars seemed so multitudinous and close together, they were like seams in a silvery, glowing blanket across the blackness overhead.
She wasn’t drunk, nor was she driving all that much higher than the speed limit, but the unpredictability of the road played no favorites.
The deer jumped out at her just as she rounded a sharp, sloping curve. It leapt into the road with timing so expert, it was as if it had hoped to strike her car. The thumping impact scared Erika so bad, she lost her grip on the wheel. Her tires lost their grip on the road. Her car tumbled down a steep embankment, striking stone and clay and stumps. As the car flipped, an image of Danielle spinning on the dance floor broke through her overwhelming panic and confusion.
Then the car lay still, and she smelled fire and it was there for real this time, all around her, it seemed. Adrenaline blocked out the pain from the rough ride off the road, but it could not dampen her terror, nor would it hold off the agony for long.
She frantically tried to unbuckle her seatbelt, succeeded, but the door wouldn’t open. She screamed and tried to scramble to the passenger side, but she came face to face with the deer. The animal was still alive but mortally wounded. Shards of glass from the windshield had lodged in its throat. Blood had matted his fur. Terror blazed in its eyes. Terror, and the fire’s reflection. It made an awful, wet mewing sound and kicked its hooves against the hood.
Everything was hot, so goddamn impossibly hot.
Erika glanced back to the driver’s window.
The gorgeous stranger from her junior prom crouched there, behind the glass. His dark eyes blazed. He smiled, but it was subdued, a subtle curving of the lips, not the cheek-splitting horror he’d flashed while spinning Danielle to her fiery death. His X-shaped scar looked red and irritated.
He reached for the window with spidery fingers. The glass bent inward and parted. It looked like slow-motion footage of stones thrown into an unmuddied pool. His hand came all the way inside the car. Up to his elbow now, his fingers curled and uncurled, beckoning to Erika.
As her hair began to sizzle and her flesh began to bubble and pain broke through the adrenaline, she remembered how this boy devil had saved Danielle from a gunman in a Sonic parking lot. How he’d spun her into oblivion when, in a fit of desperation, she could find help nowhere else. Would taking his hand damn her soul? Did she care?
Even as her skin burned, even with damnation certain, Erika reached for the boy devil’s hand and let him pull her from the flames of premature death into a life under his Damoclean sword, and she cried while they danced.
The Final Gate – Something is terrifying the residents of St. Luke’s Orphanage. Gurgling moans echo through the hallways. Hulking shapes lurk in the surrounding woods. And those who wake in the morning will find one less child under their roof…
Brandon and his girlfriend, Jillian, believe his younger brother is in serious danger. Even though the caretakers at St. Luke’s told them that he’s been adopted, Brandon has his doubts. With the help of a friend and a mysterious guide, they will do whatever it takes to find out just what is happening inside the orphanage walls…and at the bottom of the basement steps…
From Splatterpunk Award-Winning author Wesley Southard and Splatterpunk Award-Nominated author Lucas Mangum comes The Final Gate, the ultimate tribute to Italian horror master Lucio Fulci. With blood, guts, and all the nightmarish madness you’d expect from the Godfather of Gore himself, Southard and Mangum present a loving homage to spaghetti splatter and the glory of 1980’s Euro horror.
Pandemonium – A stranger in a mask walks through Philadelphia, handing out tickets to an underground wrestling show promising a level of violence unlike anything fans have seen before. The card features a mix of legends and hot up-and-comers. Most intriguing, it will mark the debut of the enigmatic, hammer-wielding Crimson Executioner, a monster of a man whose promo videos look like something out of Saw or Hostel.
The crowd enters past masked guards who don’t speak. Even the talent doesn’t know who funded the show or why; they’re happy just so long as the checks clear. None of them know the diabolical plot behind it all. When the Executioner murders his opponent in the ring, it soon becomes clear the show is a ritual to open the gates of Hell and unleash PANDEMONIUM.
Demons rise throughout the venue, using the bodies of the dead as vessels to wreak all manner of brutal carnage. Audience members and performers alike must now fight for survival as the contagion spreads all around them, inside the arena and out into the city.
In the tradition of Dario Argento’s Demons franchise and set in the world of hardcore wrestling, PANDEMONIUM is a hyper-violent tale of demonic possession, ancient evil gods, and bleeding the hard way.
American Garbage – A young adult tries to hold his band of burnouts together while navigating his own mental illness and tumultuous intimate relationships during the early years of the War on Terror.