Why (Still) Hallowe’en?

Hallowe’en is my most important holiday. I am not a pagan, born-again or otherwise, although I have nothing against members of those ancient and venerable (or new-age and invented) orders. However, my sentiment has nothing to do with any religion, organized or not, so we can safely leave those discussions out of this particular story. No, my love of All Hallows Eve is a little more personal.

When I was a child, Christmas was fun. Not having been raised in a very religious atmosphere, it was primarily a season of visiting relatives, eating cookies and candy, playing in snow, and getting presents. We followed many of the same rituals as other families of our class and background: enormous Christmas trees, house lights, waking bleary-eyed parents at 6:00am to see what Santa had left (even though we would always peek in the doorway while Daddy struggled with his 8mm movie camera), and all the rest. But, it was, in a way, too ritualized. We knew all the moves ahead of time; only the specific details changed from year to year.

The Fourth of July offered its own type of excitement, too, with firecrackers, bottle rockets, and bar-be-ques. The thrill was spiked a bit whenever we would visit my grandparents, because Grandpa Palmer had a small cannon he would load with black powder and shredded newspaper to show up all the other kids. That was always pretty neat, though in retrospect, I’m not sure why. It just made a tremendously loud BANG, and that was it. Just a little confetti drifting down afterwards.

But Hallowe’en was always different. For one, I had influence on it. You see, my mother was a frustrated artist, who lived for the opportunity to use her skills. Holidays were always been the best time for this. At Christmas, we had a tree-full of hand-made ornaments; there were intricately decorated cookies to eat; on our lawn painted plywood Peanuts characters acted out the end of that perennial TV favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Easter brought heaping baskets of candy, and tons of elaborately decorated eggs. But Hallowe’en brought costumes! And, I got to choose what type.

Every year we would begin a ritual. My mother would ask me what kind of a costume I wanted, and I would go crazy trying to decide. As do most young boys, I had an intense monster fetish. Wolfman, Frankenstein (it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that Franky was the doctor, not the monster), Dracula, various ghosts, witch doctors, alien creatures, and other mind-numbing horrors were considered each year, but only one could be chosen. Ah, the exquisite agony of decision!

Eventually, often with Mama’s prompting, I would decide. Then my mother would begin the arduous process of getting a boy with little concept of how these things work to sit still for several fittings, and assist in the choice of colors for the mask which I would wear to complete the disguise. This was not a simple process at all, for Mama’s artistic ingenuity knew no bounds. As an example, one year, I was to be a Witch Doctor. A tight-fitting chocolate brown costume was made, along with a grass skirt and an over-sized paper maché mask. But, for the finishing touch, she put some chicken bones in vinegar for weeks, to make them soft and rubbery, then strung them together into a necklace. It was perfect. (Politically correct, it was not, and I admit to a certain horror at the memory now. But those were less enlightened times.)

Then the fun would begin. Back in those simpler days, before the rules of fun were written by toy manufacturers, there were always costume parties in school. I don’t think that I won any, because there were always richer kids who could have professional costumes made. But the other kids always thought my costumes were the coolest, making it one of the few times that I was accepted by my peers. A Sav-mart Spider-man costume with a flimsy plastic mask just didn’t cut it next to my silver and blue alien jumpsuit and helmet, or a glow-in-the-dark Green Ghost costume.

And then, the ultimate event, the High Mass of All Hallow’s Eve: Trick-Or-Treating. We would begin the preparations shortly after dark, with my father putting a bowl of candy inside by the front door, for those other “lost souls” who might come by. My brother and I had, by this time, been forced to eat dinner. Our diet for the next few days would consist largely of Three Musketeers, Butterfingers, and Atomic Fireballs, so I suppose it was a last meal, of sorts. Afterwards we would whine and beg and be generally irritating until we would be allowed to get into costume for the evening’s performance. After a final checking over of all scare-systems, we would be off.

We would travel in packs, with several other neighborhood kids. The fathers would travel discreetly behind, even then, often carrying empty highball glasses for their own “treats” at discerning homes. We would run wild, carrying on like the madmen and ghouls we represented, but still finding time to stop at every house for a hearty cry of “TRICK OR TREAT!” It was rare that we would ever even consider a trick, because everyone knew the rules: if you give the kids candy, then they have a good time; if you don’t, they’ll be confused at the break from tradition, and call you stupid names. After a few hours, though, we would have gone as far as our fathers’ legs could carry them, and they would herd us toward home, where two final rituals awaited.

The first was the checking of the count. Why it was first begun, I’m not sure, probably idle curiosity, but my mother counted every single trick-or-treater who came to the door, and dutifully reported to my father as to their number. (In later years, this became a sad barometer of how effectively the true monsters were killing this holiday, as the numbers dwindled down from hundreds, to tens, to less than ten). The second arcane rite was the dividing of the spoils, my brother and I each pouring the contents of our brightly smiling plastic jack o’lanterns into carefully distinct piles on the floor. With a fervor which would make a futures trader proud, we would bid and barter to get the candy we wanted, and stick the other with the undesirable black licorice bits and stale popcorn balls. My mother went through the heaps first, though, as the concept of razor blades in apples, though quaint by today’s standards, was the real menace then. Funny how no-one thought that the holiday needed to be banned then; parents just protected their children by going through the bag before the kids ate anything.

Then, sugar-stuffed and bone-tired, we would complain and head off to bed. I would usually try to stay awake for a while, thinking of ghoulish and ghastly things. But, inevitably, sleep would come, bringing with it the threat of another ordinary day tomorrow — a threat that was always carried out.

But all these childhood memories are just part of the reason. Besides the personal considerations, to my mind Hallowe’en fills a very real need in the world: it is the only holiday glorifying the imagination. Ghoulies and ghosties scare us because we can imagine them; we can cut two holes in a sheet and become a lost soul, or don a set of plastic fangs and become the lord of the undead; we can tell and re-tell dark tales and revel in the crawling of gooseflesh. No other holiday even pays lip service to the wonders of the creative spirit. Other holidays may have their charms, but their primary purpose is the celebration of tradition, containing little room for anything more than habit.

The very soul of All Hallow’s Eve is mystery. Christmas is still, at heart, Christmas. The Fourth of July is part of the past, relived once a year. The Easter story has been told, and is fixed and unchanging, likewise with most holidays. But, Hallowe’en is new and frightening every time. There are always new stories to tell on Hallowe’en, tales which have never been told before.

And, it encompasses so very much. Christians, spiritualists, and atheists alike can share this occasion. Anyone must still see the need for the ability to see what is not there, or what might yet come to be. How else can great inventions be conceived, or great books written? All that separates man from other life on the planet is his imagination. Isn’t that worthy of celebration?

I suppose that in the end, Hallowe’en is religious for me. I have my rituals: carved pumpkins, candy, scary stories told in the dark. I have my traditions and gospels as well, when I sit in the dark and tell the story of the Haunted Elevator, or remember the costumes my mother used to make for me. On Hallowe’en I celebrate all the wonders of the limitless human imagination.

The pleasure that goes with it!

[First published in Ambergris From Leviathan Hallowe’en Special, October 1989. Most recently appeared here in 2006. Time flies when you are dead.]

Frankenstein’s Meatballs

Frankenstein's MeatballsI am not about to go to this much trouble, but…

We have the technology to join different cuts of meat together, so why do we always make it look like, well, meat? Imagine a buffet of extravagantly assembled origami meatcraft: exciting carnivorous designs concealing mysterious and unexpected stuffings; beautifully engineered steak architecture supporting provocative pork sculptures; Gaga-esque wardrobes of stitched salami and tailored chorizo viagra ohne rezept frankreich. Surely the possibilities would be endless?

To learn how to bring these meatballs to life to your table, check out Instructables.

Lit-Fic and Horror

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I found this LitReactor list of disturbing yet literary works interesting, not least because of the ten items listed, I’ve only read four. (I plan to rectify that soon.) Keep in mind, though, that it’s not a “ten best” list or anything of the sort. Thinking of all the additions I would make reminds me of how deep the field really is, and how pointless genre boundaries are.

Got any favorites you’d like to add?

13 Quotes

Antique Hallowe'en postcard

Can you identify the horror or suspense films featuring these quotes (without resorting to Google)? Some are obvious — others, less so. And a couple may be flat out obscure. But they are all films that I like.

  1. “Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the gun.”
  2. “He has his father’s eyes.”
  3. “The sow is mine!”
  4. “What does he do, this man you seek?”
  5. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara, there’s one of them now!”
  6. “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
  7. “Wanna see something really scary?”
  8. “Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother.”
  9. “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit.”
  10. “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
  11. “If thine eye offends thee… pluck it out!”
  12. “It was beauty killed the beast.”
  13. “It was an evil house from the beginning – a house that was born bad.”

So how did you do?

[Edit to Add: Something went weird with the display of the comments. They’re being saved, but they aren’t displaying. I’m working on it.]

[ETA: Perhaps they’re only displaying in… the Twilight Zone!]

Miami City Cemetery Tour

A few times a year History Miami presents a tour of the Miami City Cemetery, one of my favorite places in the city. The tour is hosted by eminent local historian Dr Paul George, who is not only exceptionally knowledgeable about the history of Florida, he’s also a skilled and enthusiastic storyteller.

Dr Paul George

Traditionally one of these cemetery tours is presented on Hallowe’en weekend, and at night. While this provides a challenge for those who want to take photos, it does provide a properly haunting atmosphere for the history lessons, atmosphere which is only partially negated by the bright street lamps illuminating the graveyard like a high school football field. Sadly, the lamps are necessary due to the frequency of vandalism.

Students examine a memorial marker

Approximately 75 people braved the threatening weather and the prospect of ghosts for the tour, several in costume. Flashlights were recommended accessories, handy for avoiding exposed tree roots in the shadows, illuminating shadowed grave markers, and reading the names of the deceased whose graves you were using as a thoroughfare.

The Belcher Mausoleum, best-maintained on the grounds

As I mentioned, Dr George is an enthusiastic storyteller and teacher. It would be easy to fill two thousand words just listing the facts and bit of trivia he tossed out during the two hour tour, and still have missed half of what he said. Rather than try, here are a few points of interest.

The final resting place of Jolly Jack Peacock

This is Miami’s oldest official cemetery, containing some of the oldest marked grave sites in the area. Approximately nine thousand people are buried in its ten acres, and while in theory several hundred plots remain empty, they are strictly reserved for the deed holders for the plots, or those who can prove direct family ties to the deed holder. Consequently, there are about five to seven new burials each year.

Many of Miami’s pioneering families and early leaders are buried here, including Julia Tuttle, the “mother of Miami” who was recently (and finally!) honored with a statue. On this special night Julia’s ghost appeared beside her grave, giving a short presentation about her role in Miami’s founding. Okay, maybe it was a little corny, but it was well-presented, and very engaging.

The Ghost of Julia Tuttle appeared to give a short speech

It’s tempting to share many of Dr Paul’s stories, but I’d hardly know where to start. The eerie tale of Mr Miller, who was so taken with the story of the Romans entombed in lava during the eruption of Mt Vesuvius that when his wife died he had her body — on its bed! — encased in concrete? Perhaps the 1905 double murder that remains unsolved to this day? The crackhead who killed his prostitute girlfriend and set her body ablaze on the steps of the Burdines family crypt? No, I couldn’t do them justice. You should take the tour and hear the history of Miami from one of its best-known experts.

A solitary royal palm, a species indigenous to the Everglades

You can learn a lot about a city and its people by visiting its cemetery. Take one of History Miami’s tours — particularly those with Dr George — and you’ll come away with a far greater appreciation of South Florida’s history.

History Miami (previously known as the Historical Society of Southern Florida)  puts together excellent tours and provides a good blend of entertainment and education in their offerings. I hope this rebranding effort helps them get the exposure they deserve.

All Hallow's Read

Not these books, though.

Bestselling author Neil Gaiman came up with a brilliant concept last week.

I propose that, on Hallowe’en or during the week of Hallowe’en, we give each other scary books. Give children scary books they’ll like and can handle. Give adults scary books they’ll enjoy.

And so was born a new tradition, one already embraced by lovers of scary stories around the world: All Hallow’s Read. It’s really simple. Find appropriately scary or spooky books, and give them away for Hallowe’en. Given my love of (a) Hallowe’en, (b) scary books, and (c) giving people gifts, this resonates with me in a big way.

Stories are the real essence of Hallowe’en, so what better way to celebrate it than to share them?

In that spirit, here’s what I am going to do. Would you like a free spooky book, without having to knock on my door? Leave a comment on this post saying “trick or treat,” and make certain you include a valid e-mail address (in the header, so no one sees it). If you’d rather, you could also send Hidden City a DM on Twitter, send a Facebook message, e-mail me directly, or use the Contact form. Just contact me in some way, say “Trick or Treat for a scary book!”, and I’ll send you something.

It’ll be much better for you than another bag of candy corn, anyway.

[I should point out that I’ll have to cut this off if the number of respondents gets too high, but since any post rarely exceeds two comments or twenty visitors these days, I don’t think we need to worry. If the number creeps into the hundreds… well, I’ll faint, frankly.]

Late party

The party was in an unfamiliar suburban neighborhood in the Midwest, probably Kentucky or Illinois. The tree-lined street was well-shadowed, and the streetlights lit circles of ground littered with the browns and oranges of fallen leaves. Clearly I wasn’t in Miami.

I walked up the steps to the front door of the old wooden house. A grinning jack o-lantern stood watch on the porch, and the front door was open, with just a screen door to keep the bugs out. Jazz was playing, and further in I could see costumed revelers mingling, drinks in hand. I opened the door and entered.

Everyone was masked: witches, mummies, vampires, werewolves, skeletons, salted with the occasional spaceman or hobo. The host had gone to truly remarkable lengths to make this an authentic 1950s Hallowe’en party, black and orange crepe paper and all.

A man in a leering devil mask shoved a glass in my hand. “Have a drink, boy, it’ll loosen you up!” He leaned back and laughed, a hearty guffaw that sounded strangely familiar. “You need a little loosening up, son, you sure do! We all do!”

He stumbled a bit as he turned, his red plastic pitchfork nearly tearing the wing off a nearby fairy. It was becoming more crowded by the minute, , and I started looking for a side room where I could breath for a minute, before my claustrophobia kicked in. I found a closed door decorated with a dancing paper skeleton, brass rivets for its joints. I knocked, and when there was no reply, opened and entered.

The dark room was small, a child’s bedroom. A candle shaped like a black cat burned on the windowsill, its back arched and yellow eyes wide and staring. Under the window was a small bed, and on the bed a grey cat lay curled, sleeping. “Hello, Lady Gray,” I whispered, and then paused. How did I know this cat’s name? Wait, how could this be the same cat? She disappeared a couple of years ago, in Miami. Still, she slowly lifted her head, yawned broadly, and looked directly into my eyes. It was her.

There was a scratching at the door behind me. As I turned it swung open, yellow light spilling in. Silhouetted by the lights of the party sat a stocky orange cat. The candlelight flickered in his eyes as he stared at me, then turn and walked into the forest of legs. I followed.

The party was in full swing. I heard children laughing in another room, and splashing water, while be-bop bubbled from a hi-fi on a table. I followed Colonel Hoppy — it had to be him! — through a maze of rooms lit by lamps or candles or jack o’lanterns, past ghosts in old sheets and Frankenstein’s monster in a floppy rubber mask. Eventually — just how many rooms were there? — he walked down a dark hallway, and stopped in front a closed door. The music was distant now, the incandescent yellow glow from beneath the door the only light. Hoppy turned and look at me, patiently waiting for me to turn the knob.

Old white enamel appliances ringed the room,  and the smell of baking pie was overwhelming. Pumpkin pie, of course. I wrinkled my nose; I don’t like pumpkin pie.

But wait, I love pumpkin pie, I have for years. I didn’t like it when I was a kid, sure, but… Wait.

I knew this room. This was Grandma Hall’s kitchen. There’s the door to the back yard, a couple of steps down and then there would be a steel glider and two shell-shaped motel chairs. A square, Formica-topped table filled the center of the room. A very, very old woman in a tidy checkered dress sat primly in one of the vinyl covered metal chairs, deep in conversation with a woman in a broad witch’s hat, a high black wig spilling from under it, and green makeup smeared over her face.

My mother, talking with my great-grandmother.

My mother looked up at me, one eyelid drooping just a bit from the Bell’s palsy she’d suffered when we first moved to Florida. She shook her head at me.

“You don’t need to be here. I know you mean well, but there’s no reason for you to be here talking to the old women. There’s no point to it. Go be with your friends. I’ll take care of things here.”

But of course, my mother is dead, just like everyone else at the party. Even the cats, most likely. Why was I there?

I opened the door to the back yard and stepped down: one, two, then soft grass yielded under my shoe. It was dark, but there were clusters of fireflies dancing through the night sky.

There was a polite cough behind me, where the glider should be, and then a deep, even voice.

“Sit down and rest a while. We’re about done here.”

The fireflies moved closer, as I fell away.

Creep

Is this an overtly spooky video? No, but once you watch it you’ll understand why there’s a subtle and all too real kind of horror in it.

And anyway, as I need to remind myself from time to time: my site, my rules. It’s Hallowe’en-appropriate if I say it is.

Creep (Radiohead) – Scala & Kolacny Brothers.

On a related note, that film I posted the other day, Alma? There’s word on the street that Dreamworks is developing it as a feature film.

The Tourist

These two bookends originally appeared in my October Stories 2006 event. I’ve decided to take them out and brush off the cobwebs because as a friend surmised at that time, there’s more to them than what you see here — much more.

Arrival

The improbably tall man stood in front of the glass wall, his ivory complexion catching the moonlight in the shadows of the lightless office. He was as motionless as marble, staring out into the night, seemingly lost in thought.

With a nearly imperceptible sigh he turned from the window and stepped back into the shadows of the office, pausing to observe the scene: blue-tinged light spilling across a well-appointed office, bookcases and credenza along the walls, massive desk facing the door, a large leather chair overturned in a struggle. Stepping carefully over the ruined areas of the carpet, he moved to the chair and bent from the waist to right it. Untidiness disturbed him, unless it served his purpose, and he had no need of it now. With age comes conservatism, or so he’d heard, and in his case it was certainly true. In his youth he’d been more flexible, his work more improvised and spontaneous, almost — but never quite — free-form. Somewhere he’d become complacent, though; he’d been following the same patterns for his entire adult career, and his improvisational youth was long past.

He crouched behind the desk and picked up the chair’s former occupant, arranging him in the seat as best he could. Surveying his efforts, he frowned. The fat and dark-suited figure slumped in the burgundy leather chair had his eyes closed. He knew, of course, that the man had died of a heart attack before he had even begun his work, but he almost failed to note that the eyes were closed. That was not acceptable, not at all.

He gently slid up the eyelids, his long fingers deftly arranging cooling muscle and skin into an aspect of stark terror. Perhaps the years of soft living had provided the man with a shortcut out of his life, but there was no reason for it to be so obvious to anyone else. The tale, pale man had standards to uphold.

When he was satisfied with the tableau the police would find, he wiped his bone-handled razor carefully on his handkerchief and slipped it into his pants pocket, then deliberately placed the cloth under the chair. As an afterthought he opened the humidor on the desk and removed several cigars. He sniffed them as if a connoisseur — though he had never before held a cigar — and knew instinctively that they were Cuban-made. Nodding to himself he slipped them in the vest pocket of his jacket. It seemed important, somehow.

He looked through the few dry papers on the blotter, but nothing felt significant, so he inspected the desk. A swift and strong pull opened the single locked drawer; he reached in, withdrew some folders, and rolled and pocketed them.

As he prepared to leave the office he allowed himself another moment in front of the window. Far below he could see the expensive cars and expensive people responsible for this neighborhood’s reputation; in the glass he saw his own pale skin and heavy black coat, and thought of his own reputation, earned long ago.

He turned from the window, then caught himself and turned back. Studying his reflection, he concentrated for a moment, then rewrote his somber woolen clothing into a cream-colored linen suit. As he did so, his alabaster skin darkened to olive, and his thin white hair turned thick and black.

He smiled at his handiwork, taking a cigar from his pocket and trimming it expertly. As he locked the door behind him, he thought, So this is Miami. Perhaps I will stay a while.

Departure

Carefully wiping clean the tools of his trade, the improbably tall man in the cream linen suit considered his sojourn in Miami. It had been hard work, much more difficult than he had anticipated. These people proved to be so indifferent to the fates of those around them that it took extraordinary measures to generate any significant amount of fear at all.

He glanced through the kitchen window to the pool, silver and black and indigo, and at the neighbor’s home beyond it. Most people attributed his work to a variety of sources; somehow, this year one detective had seen the signature he had left behind at each workplace. She had been fearless, and for that he credited her. She seemed to grasp something of his nature, what he was — his methods, his purpose — and yet she still continued her pursuit. When he eventually trapped her, and sliced her tendons to prevent her escape, she had spat at him, and then muttered a small curse.

You won’t get what you want from me, she snarled. I will not fear you.

A slight smile flickered as he reflected on her crushed expression as he quietly explained his complete indifference to her fear. His interest was the terror her end would distill in her associates, in those who looked up to her. Her death was simply raw material.

She remained defiant for quite a while, for longer than most in his long, long career. Of course, once his work was complete he had arranged her features into a more appropriate expression of horror.

He drew a thick cigar from a silver case as he walked though the still, suburban house to the front door. He did not stop to review his art as he passed, but he did pause a moment at one bedroom doorway. As he looked inside, the moon-cast shadow of a Disney mobile slowly crossed his no-longer-pale face. Extraordinary measures, indeed, he thought, but hardly the first time.

Even though this season had been less productive than he wished, he enjoyed his visit to Miami. He had become rather fond of the rich cigars, for one, and even though he did not swim, he did enjoy the ocean. Its primal nature suited him — it reminded him of when he was new.

However, now he must return to the cooler climates of the north, far from the sea. After a glance at the mirror beside the front door he changed his linen suit for black wool, an indistinctly old-fashioned cut. His deeply tanned skin paled, and his eyes lightened from brown to grey. But as his hand touched the doorknob he hesitated, and looked in the mirror again. Why not? he thought. I’ve just spent a month in Miami.

As he stooped to enter the waiting limousine, he looked at the reflection of his freshly sun-bleached hair in the tinted glass, and smiled broadly. His driver shuddered.