Who remembers Tales from the Darkside? Can you recall that introductory sequence, the slow trip through the woods, the eerie theme music, building tension until the scene flips, colors invert, and the organ lands its ominous final note?
It imparts a sense of unease, atmospheric tension. To halt the viewing experience at this point is to leave the details of the “darkside,” an alternate place which exists in the long twilight shadows of the world, to the viewer’s imagination.
The imagination can be powerful, intimidating, and sometimes inescapable.
Speaking of horror anthology television shows of the 1980s, another opening theme that comes to mind is that of The Hitchhiker. Late at night, the opening beat would start with a hitchhiker’s solitary walk down a dirt road between desolate hills and past a rock formation. It’s this aspect I remember most of all: the setting, the sense of isolation, and minimal accompanying theme music. But from an objective standpoint, it’s just a man walking, isn’t it? Or is it?
There is more to the picture, we sense, a crucial detail askew, and more to come. As the scene fades out, this lingers on our thoughts.
Reaching even further back, I could go on to speak of The Twilight Zone, the original version created by Rod Serling, one of my favorite television shows of all time and an early influence on my work as a writer. Its theme and opening sequence needs no introduction.
Visiting an old, abandoned barn, happening across an unusual cemetery to which no road leads, or a mere stroll through the woods might serve to stir these avenues of the imagination. A late-night drive along old roads, such as one I made years back to find the Joplin Spooklight, or walking the perimeter of a school at night, with bulbs casting faint illumination across each of the locked entrances. While the building appears abandoned for the moment, the heavy silence echoes an unspoken question: are we alone here? Or are we being watched at this very moment?
Frightening? Maybe. Better yet, inspiring. Prominent fuel for an opening theme, if only in our own minds.
Every horror story must have its beginning, after all, whether the beginning of the end, a stab of sheer terror, or a moment’s speculation that leaves us uncertain but wondering, unable to turn away. It begins with the senses—the sights, the sounds—and in the darker spaces of the imagination, culminates in the question: what next?
Boo-graphy: Tommy B Smith is a writer of horror and dark fiction, award-winning author of The Mourner’s Cradle, Poisonous, and the forthcoming Black Carmenia series. His presence currently infests Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he resides with his wife and cats.
Black Carmenia 1: New Era Insomnia. Headaches. Fear.
It drove Marjorie down, cost her a career, and almost destroyed her marriage. When she and her husband Terry escaped to the quiet green countryside west of the Mississippi River, their new home, it seemed too good to last.
The snake-ridden adjoining property, bordered by a row of maple trees, hosts a deadly secret. There the blood of fields and innocents stain the crumbling ruins of an old farmhouse, a decaying testament to a web of treachery and murder stretching back to distant times.
The horror in the ruins watches in wait. Marjorie fears the end, and the end is coming.
Meghan: Hey Chad!! Welcome back to Meghan’s HAUNTED House of Books. Thank you for joining in our Halloween shenanigans once again. What is your favorite part of Halloween?
Chad: Probably that for a short time, my tribe widens, meaning that even those outside the tribe acknowledge horror by way of the décor in every store, front lawns, films released in theaters, and even TV episodes dedicated to spooky, making us monster kids feel a little more at home.
Meghan: Do you get scared easily?
Chad: Not from movies or books, no. From the possibilities of experiencing legitimate trauma that comes with living on this planet? Yes.
Meghan: What is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen and why?
Chad: The Exorcist. I’ve seen it several times, and it still makes me feel uneasy.
Meghan: Which horror movie murder did you find the most disturbing?
Chad: When they all stab the kid to death in Bully. That got to me. Another one would be the guy’s wife in the shower at the beginning of Terrified.
Meghan: Is there a horror movie you refused to watch because the commercials scared you too much?
Chad: No, though there are some I won’t watch because I’ve heard a lot about them. One of those being A Serbian Film. I have no interest in watching stuff like that.
Meghan: If you got trapped in one scary movie, which would you choose?
Meghan: What is the creepiest thing that’s ever happened while you were alone?
Chad: Technically, I wasn’t alone, but my wife was asleep. About 25 years ago we were renting a place that had the bedroom windows facing a little one-lane alley that never had any traffic. It was a hot summer night and those windows (which were directly behind the head of the bed) were open. Just as I was falling asleep, I could hear footsteps in the alley, then I smelled cigarette smoke. The footsteps stopped right behind my head, and my dog looked out and started growling with his eyes on the bushes under the window. I was too afraid to look behind me, so I slid off the bed as quietly as I could and called 911, whispering in the phone. After the footsteps stopped right at the windows, I never heard them again. I was terrified.
Meghan: Which unsolved mystery fascinates you the most?
Chad: I can’t think of anything crime wise, but I get a kick out of Bigfoot and alien stuff.
Meghan: What is the spookiest ghost story that you have ever heard?
Chad: My son’s girlfriend showed me security camera footage of a woman in their house wearing a nightgown, walking off camera to the corner of their room for an hour, then coming back into view and leaving the room. They have no idea who it was, but it happened while they were sleeping.
Meghan: In a zombie apocalypse, what is your weapon of choice?
Chad: Samurai sword for sure
Meghan: Okay, let’s have some fun… Would you rather get bitten by a vampire or a werewolf? Chad: Vampire Meghan: Would you rather fight a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion? Chad: Zombies… far less threatening. Meghan: Would you rather drink zombie juice or eat dead bodies from the graveyard? Chad: Won’t zombie juice turn me undead? If so, give me the body smothered in nacho cheese. Meghan: Would you rather stay at the Poltergeist house or the Amityville house for a week? Chad: 112 Ocean Avenue, here I come. Meghan: Would you rather chew on a bitter melon with chilies or maggot-infested cheese? Chad: You almost had me with the cheese, but I’ll take the melon. Meghan: Would you rather drink from a witch’s cauldron or lick cotton candy made of spider webs? Chad: Depends on what’s in the cauldron. I love frog legs, so I’m cool with that.
Slow Burn on Riverside When 18-year-old Jex moves into a new apartment, his roommate’s descent into drugs paves the way for mental illness, while Jex deals with their sexually assertive landlady. But when her teenage son shows up, things take a very dark turn.
The Neon Owl 1: When the Shit Hits the Van Jinx is a record-collecting, middle-aged minimalist whose dreams of becoming a detective are waylaid by love and laziness. But when he inherits his late aunt’s rundown motel, The Neon Owl, his passion for investigative work reignites while he searches for answers as to who keeps shitting in the bushes. His findings lead to a full-blown murder mystery where he and new-found friend, Roddy, the elderly, one-legged handyman, set out to find the killer.
A crime noir-ish whodunnit rife with humor, grit, and ranch dressing.
Meghan: Hey, John! Welcome back to Meghan’s (Haunted) House of Books. What is your favorite part of Halloween?
John: The imagery! Halloween is when all of the gothic, spooky stuff comes out to play. Haunted houses, giant spiderwebs, eerie candlelight emanating from grotesquely carved pumpkins… I love it all. In Chicagoland, the weather turns from the fading light of summer to the crisp and bone-chilling cool breezes that signal the coming of winter, and the leaves that were so vibrantly red and orange just a couple weeks before litter the ground as brown, dried husks. Desiccated memories of the vibrance of summer. Halloween is the between time, the dying time between the days of warmth and sunlight and the frozen deathscape that freezes and kills the land in December and January. I can’t imagine Halloween in a warmer climate because the weather provides as much a part of the chill as the dying landscape and early nightfalls.
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween tradition?
John: My personal Halloween tradition is pretty standard — I watch horror movies. I do that year-round, of course, but I used to spend a whole weekend binging on horror movies leading up to Halloween, which was awesome. I’d get through a handful each day. I haven’t been able to wallow in the creepy crazy for that much dedicated time the past few years… but one of these days I’ll be able to do nothing but watch old Euro-horror movies for a solid weekend to celebrate Halloween again! And host the Halloween movie nights for friends that I used to before everyone’s lives got so crazy busy we couldn’t get them scheduled anymore!
Meghan: If Halloween is your favorite holiday (or even second favorite holiday), why?
John: I love everything spooky, supernatural and gothic, and Halloween is the one time of year that everyone in the world gives a nod to the creepy stuff that I love to see and talk about all year round. For a little while, everyone is into horror movies and lawns are decorated with all manner of “haunted house” style decorations. I love it.
Meghan: What are you superstitious about?
John: I don’t know that I’m really superstitious. But sometimes I do wonder if my pinball machines are possessed by a spirit who likes to taunt me. Anyone who knows me knows I love pinball almost as much as horror and music, and I own five classic machines in my basement that I play all the time. Some nights, particularly if I hit the restart button because I start a game with a bad ball and don’t feel like finishing the game with a handicap, it’s almost like the machine knows I’m “cheating” and starting over – and the next half dozen balls will all go straight down the middle or side with no chance for me to hit them with the flipper. It’s as if the game demon says “oh, you want a do-over do you? Take that. And that. And that. C’mon, can’t you handle it sucker?” It’s creepy when it feels like the game suddenly turns on you and consistently does unusual things with the ball.
Meghan: What/who is your favorite horror monster or villain?
John: The title character of The Living Dead Girl by French director Jean Rollin. She is both a horrific and pathetic character – a “zombie/ghoul” who slowly comes back from the dead and rebels against her blood-drinking nature and her best friend who feeds her with victims out of misguided love.
Meghan: Which unsolved murder fascinates you the most?
John: I honestly couldn’t name one. I don’t ever read or watch anything about “true crime.”
Meghan: Which urban legend scares you the most?
John: Bloody Mary used to creep the hell out of me as a kid. Some people call her Mary Worth. The whole idea of going into a dark candlelit room, saying her name in the mirror multiple times and having her spirit come through the mirror in answer to potentially claw your eyes out… it’s such a perfect way to build dread. Kids do it on a dare, but all you need is just a hair of fear that the legend could be true and by the time you say Bloody Mary’s name the third time, your heart is racing.
Meghan: Who is your favorite serial killer and why?
John: Again… don’t like true crime stuff, so none of them. I read “escapist” supernatural horror so that I don’t have to be faced with the real life monsters that walk the earth.
Meghan: How old were you when you saw your first horror movie? How old were you when you read your first horror book?
John: Geez, I couldn’t answer that with any surety. I’ve watched the old black and white classic horrors since I can remember. We had WGN – Channel 9 TV in Chicago that used to play a Creature Features program on Friday or Saturday nights that I saw a lot while I was in grade school. I do remember being in probably 3rd or 4th grade and watching a PBS color production of Dracula that I really thought was great at the time. Loved the whole gothic setting with coffins and dusty castles. That probably set the stage for my love of Hammer Films later in life.
As far as first horror book… again, my memory just doesn’t go that far back! I remember reading ghost story books I bought from the Scholastic Book catalog in grade school and loving the spooky factor. And I remember buying a complete collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction at a garage sale once and reading and re-reading that book (which is still on my shelf). Maybe one of the earliest printed impacts on me was a comic book that I bought in probably first or second grade. It might have been an Eerie Tales or something like that. I don’t really remember the stories, but I do know they stuck with me a long time and I still retain one image of a skeletal woman in a bridal headdress driving down the street at the end of one. Apparently whatever that twist was creeped me out enough to remember a snippet of that image almost 50 years later.
Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?
John: Probably Clive Barker’s The Damnation Game. It was the first novel of his I read, and I read it during one of my first trips away from home alone when I was probably 22 – I’d flown to Memphis to spend a weekend with some other journalists on a “PR junket” hosted by the city. We went there to see Graceland and the Handy Blues awards and to generally get a 36-hour tour of the city to go home and write travel stories about how great Memphis was for our newspapers. I remember the first night I was in the hotel room alone, reading that novel and the scene about people being skinned alive and when I turned out the lights to go to sleep… I was severely creeped out!
Meghan: Which horror movie scarred you for life?
John: I don’t know about “scarred” but Alien impacted me severely. The atmosphere, the slow brooding, building suspense, the wildly otherworldly and ominous spaceship architecture… it was a genius sci-fi horror film and has been in my top 5 horror and top 5 sci-fi movie lists since the day I first saw it. It’s an unsettling, scary and darkly beautiful film.
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween costume?
John: I have never been a “dress up” person myself, but I do appreciate creative costumes and makeup. Always love good zombie, ghoul or witch makeup!
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween-themed song?
John: That one’s easy. “(Every Day is) Halloween” by Ministry. It’s an amazing track both for the Halloween theme and for synth pop. One of my favorite dance club tracks ever, bar none.
Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween candy or treat? What is your most disappointing?
John: Best treat is definitely Almond Joy bars. Worst? Dental floss. (Assholes).
Meghan: Thanks for stopping by, John. It is ALWAYS a pleasure to have you visit. One more thing before you go: What are you top 10 go-to Halloween movies?
John: I am a huge movie buff, and literally own hundreds of horror and giallo DVDs and Blu-Rays. That makes it super hard to pick a top 5 or 10 or even 25… There are so many good ones. So… I’ve tried to note the movies that have really stuck with me the most across multiple genres of horror. Films that I’ve watched multiple times. There are dozens of films I could point to as “oh yeah, that’s a great one!” but here are films that really moved me. From the extreme horror of the French new wave in the 90s with High Tension and Martyrs to the claustrophobic indie horror of Cronenberg’s early Rabid and Shivers, I come back to these again and again. Though my main favorites tend to be older – ‘70s and ‘80s films are my jam. I’m not that much of a modern horror fan. My “Top 3” below are films that have all actually been my #1 at one time or another. I used to say Alien until the Suspiria 4K remaster happened a few years ago! And Jean Rollin’s sexy and horrible beautiful pathos of Living Dead Girl has occupied my #2 or #3 spot since I first saw it some 20 years ago:
John is also the editor of the anthologies Sins of the Sirens (Dark Arts Books, 2008) and In Delirium II(Delirium Books, 2007) and co-editor of theSpooks!ghost story anthology (Twilight Tales, 2004). In 2006, he co-founded Dark Arts Books to produce trade paperback collections spotlighting the cutting edge work of some of the best authors working in short dark fantasy fiction today.
John shares a deep purple den in Naperville, Illinois with a cockatoo and cockatiel, a disparate collection of fake skulls, twisted skeletal fairies, Alan Clark illustrations and a large stuffed Eeyore. There’s also a mounted Chinese fowling spider named Stoker courtesy of fellow horror author Charlee Jacob, an ever-growing shelf of custom mix CDs and an acoustic guitar that he can’t really play but that his son likes to hear him beat on anyway. Sometimes his wife is surprised to find him shuffling through more public areas of the house, but it’s usually only to brew another cup of coffee. In order to avoid the onerous task of writing, he records pop-rock songs in a hidden home studio, experiments with the insatiable culinary joys of the jalapeno, designs book covers for a variety of small presses, loses hours in expanding an array of gardens and chases frequent excursions into the bizarre visual headspace of ’70s euro-horror DVDs with a shot of Makers Mark and a pint of Revolution Anti-Hero IPA.
Voodoo Heart — When Detective Lawrence Ribaud wakes alone in a bloody bed with his wife missing, he knows this is more than just a mysterious case of murder. His wife is the latest victim in a string of bizarre disappearances. All across New Orleans, on one night each month, people are vanishing, leaving behind nothing but a pool of blood on the bedsheets… and an abandoned heart. Ribaud doesn’t believe in voodoo, but he soon finds himself moving through the underbelly of a secret society of snakes, sacrifices and obscene rituals in search of the mysterious Black Queen … and the curse of her Voodoo Heart.
The Devil’s Equinox — Austin secretly wishes his wife would drop dead. He even says so one boozy midnight at the bar to a sultry stranger with a mysterious tattoo. When his wife later introduces that stranger as Regina, their new neighbor, Austin hopes she will be a good influence on his wife. Instead, one night he comes home to find his wife dead. Soon he’s entranced with Regina, who introduces him to a strange world of bloodletting, rituals and magic. A world that puts everything he loves in peril. Can Austin save his daughter, and himself, before the planets align for the Devil’s Equinox?