Opening the Vault of Poetry

Today I was invited to participate in a special Hallowe’en edition of the live Social Chats broadcast hosted by Tonya Scholz with an assist by Maria De Los Angeles. It was an informal bit of fun, giving me a chance to talk a little about my own fascination with the holiday and it’s changing place in American culture. As a special treat — although some may have considered it a trick — Maria had asked me to read something for the show. I decided to dust off this poem I wrote nearly twenty-five years ago and perform it live. You can hear it when you listen to the archive of the broadcast (titled “Halloween 1026”), but if things go well there will be a special recording of it here on Hidden City tomorrow.

The Glade

By day the glade’s a sunny, pleasant place—
a stand of oaks which rings an open space
where flowers grow, and children come to play
as long as lasts the clear, bright light of day.

But dusk does fall, and children run to home,
as deep’ning dark starts stirrings in the loam.
Long years ago this glade was oft the site
of gruesome deeds, and bloody, evil rites.

Twilight does fade the flowers’ springtime hues
to ghastly jaundiced shades and ghostly blues,
while murmurs on the wind from far away
foretell the birth of night—the death of day.

A hush throughout the wood does quickly fall
as Darkness shrieks its silent, spectral call.
Then midnight shadows cloak the ancient bower
as solemn bells announce the spirits’ hour.

As sulph’rous mist, from earth the Spectres rise
they have no face, save glowing crimson eyes
which burn so bright with unrelenting hate
for those who once consigned them to this fate.

The from the trees a pulsing rhythm grows
which snares the twisted spirits in the throes
of wanton dance; a mournful, eerie sight
to see such phantoms writhing in the light

Of distant stars. And then begins to wail
of souls long lost to realms beyond the veil
of Death. This most unholy music makes
the stoutest heart to fail, and souls to break.

The lesser things are tainted here as well,
the puny fauna of the pits of hell:
the things that hop and sting and fly,
things that should not live, yet cannot die.

And other things do live here in this glade
foul creatures which our Maker never made.
Things that also caper in the light
of ghostly stars, and yearn for that which might

Release them from their bondage to this place.
For then they would repay the day-time race
in kind for deeds done long ago by men
who longed for Pow’r, and sought it in this glen.

For hours this madness in the glade goes on
until a light presages birth of dawn
and death of night. And thus, with just a hiss
of steam, the demons turn again to mist.

The horrors of the night soon fade away,
dispersed again by power of the day.
The Darkness calls its troops back from a rout
to calmly wait the night when they will out.

Soon the games of children will be found
where eldritch evil waits close underground.
And pretty blooms look not the least forlorn
where shadows sleep, and wait to be reborn.

[This was written on May 17, 1986, was first published in Ambergris From Leviathan Special Edition #2, Hallowe’en 1989, and first appeared on Hidden City in October, 2006.]

Shambles

A couple of weeks ago I went out to see the invasion: a mob of zombies assembling to meander around the stores and restaurants on South Beach’s Lincoln Road. According to their Facebook page over 1600 people had confirmed their attendance; given that on-line RSVPs have about a 10% follow-through rate, that could still mean a couple of hundred blood-spattered undead mingling with the beautiful people and the tourists.

The shirt is in case he forgets why he wants a brain.
The shirt is in case he forgets why he wants a brain.
The family that slays-- no, that joke's too old.
The family that slays-- no, that joke's too old.

It started slowly. I arrived at the designated starting place (near one of the several Starbucks) about thirty minutes before the scheduled start. There were no rotting corpses in sight, although to be fair, there was quite a bit of flesh that had clearly been preserved beyond its natural life through the wonders of chemistry.

As my companion was hungry, we decided to grab a bite to eat at Carnevale (I recommend the gnocci), giving us a good view of the traffic. My companion, I should point out, was not interested in brains, although she has probably eaten them on occasion.

The philosophical undead. (Excellent makeup, too.)
The philosophical undead. (Excellent makeup, too.)

The first trio of teen zombies appeared right on time, at 8:30 on the dot, indicating that they were among the Broward County dead, as no one in Miami ever shows up on time. After that, nothing for at least thirty minutes.

This zombie was so cute if she'd asked for my brain I may well have given it to her. Hell, if I had her number I'd offer it freely.
This zombie was so cute if she'd asked for my brain I may well have given it to her. Hell, if I had her number I'd offer it freely.

There were several moments when I was certain I had seen more zombies: unhealthily thin, sallow complexions, disheveled clothing. No, just the usual Saturday night South Beach crowd. They’ll fool you every time.

This one was freshly dead and still quite lively.
This one was freshly dead and still quite lively.

Then there was a commotion from behind us, and the sounds of chanting. The horde had arrived. They were hungry, and I didn’t think gnocci was going to cut it.

She's a man-eater...
She's a man-eater...

After eating I followed them around a bit. Frankly, zombies lose their enthusiasm pretty easily, and are as simple to distract as pre-teens full of Hallowe’en candy.

There was a special on cerebellum ripple.
There was a special on cerebellum ripple.

Sadly, my camera’s battery died before I could capture the evening’s final zombies standing outside a store window, staring motionless and slack-jawed at its contents. A butcher shop, a delicatessen, perhaps?

No. The Apple Store.

Haunted Gardens

I wasn’t planning to leave the house today. My original goal was to keep my head down and work on some writing projects, mainly a temporary job I’ve picked up that will last through election day. However, since I never got my assignments I let myself be convinced to visit a place that used to be a regular stop for me: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. There was some kind of Edible Garden Festival going on which my friend wanted to see. Me, I just thought I’d get some fresh air and exercise.

To my surprise, there were also some Hallowe’en decorations here and there, all made from fallen plant life — sheets of bark, dried palm pods, things like that.

The devil, you say?
Like a bat outta hell...

This stuff made me think of my mother. She loved these slightly goofy and cheesy rustic craft decorations, and made quite a few herself. She would have gotten a kick out of these, and would have saved fallen palm fronds in the garage for a year just so she could make this stuff, driving my poor father crazy.

Ghost Toasties
Haunted tree

The ghosts had made their way around the gardens, even visiting the resident celebrity.

Hanging around
Only a ghost could eat what they'd catch in that pond!
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas chats with a nicely accessorized spirit. (Marjorie is on the right.)

There was also some kind of a scarecrow building contest being judged. I was rather fond of these entries.

This was titled "Havanese Scarecrows." I'm not sure why the lady scarecrow is lying down there, but the expression on the guy gives a clue.
This must be a Keys scarecrow. Look at the nice white linen suit! (Hmm, has anyone checked on Jimmy Buffet's whereabouts lately?)
This... well, I don't know, really. A bee or something in Viking gear? It looked threatening, and quite serious.

After wandering around for a while we grabbed a bite at the Sakaya Kitchen food truck. I got an order of some sort of croquetas with kim chee which were astoundingly good, while my friend got a pulled pork sandwich with kim chee slaw (which was also damned good). I felt a little bad for the perennial classic Keys conch fritter wagon; they were located across from the long lines at the Sakaya truck.

To be fair, they had a line just a few minutes after I took this. But I always love seeing this wagon!

I noticed that unlike previous visits to Fairchild there were none of the usual large iguanas hanging around sunning themselves. It hasn’t been cold at all yet, so they can’t have been killed off by the weather. I wonder if there’s some new predator?

Here kitty... kitty?

Like an enormous animal/plant hybrid cat? Just what do they do in those distant research stations, anyway?

Hands

Two words of caution about today’s Hidden City Cinema offering. First, it’s done in shaky-cam, so if Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield made you want to barf (from the motion, not the scripts), exercise caution. (It’s only a minute and a half, though.) Second, if you are easily creeped out, do not watch this at home alone at night. It’s really quite effective.

Cemetery in the Rain

A video stroll through New Orleans’ Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, from June, 2008. Shortly after arriving in started to rain. How apropos!

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in cemeteries lately; given the time of year this probably not a surprise. Expect to see more along this line soon. In the interim, see how my morbidity has begun to corrupt otherwise innocent photographers?

Vintage Hallowe'en Postcards

For the first few decades of the 20th century people used postcards for holiday communications. This was before both the more modern folded greeting cards, and the current electronic cards. Postcard publication was a huge industry, with the best illustrators of the day contributing art. While the initial cards were relatively simple, as time passed and competition intensified printers started to add embossing and metallic inks to their offerings.

I’ve added scans of both the front and back of each card. Most of the time the back is pretty boring, but since I rather like the “postally used” cards (to use the collector’s term), some have great stories. I haven’t found any with a South Florida connection yet, but that isn’t surprising. Miami had barely been incorporated when the tradition started, and then the first real estate collapse and the 1926 hurricane disrupted what little normal routine existed.

For the uninitiated, it may seem odd that so many of the Hallowe’en cards in my collection have romantic themes, but back then the holiday wasn’t viewed the same as today. It was a harvest holiday, sure, and the German and Irish immigrants brought elements of their own celebrations with them. For kids it was a chance to play, whether dressing up as gremlins or ghosts to scare people, or carving jack o’lanterns. But for young, single adults it was a chance to play with an innocent bit of magic, playing fortune-telling games at parties.

So in the first half of the twentieth century Hallowe’en was about a little mystery and a little magic and playing jokes and being safely scared, with maybe a hint of romance mixed in. It was a different world, and a world that’s reflected in these vintage postcards.

[My apologies to the Apple users, but I couldn’t get WordPress to give me a slideshow with all 98 images, so I had to use Flickr, and Flickr uses Flash, which you can’t see. You can navigate directly to the Vintage Hallowe’en Postcards set, though, and see them there.]

Grey Wisdom

I looked across the dark lawn from my porch at the silvery-green eyes peering from under my car.

“You may as well come out, I can see you. Why are you staring at me?”

“Why are you outside during our time?” The sleek grey cat stretched as he strolled out of the shadows. “You should be sleeping.”

“He doesn’t sleep much these days,” the fatter of the pair replied as she waddled out. “The one he calls Goblin told me.”

“Is that any of your business? And why are you talking to my cats, anyway?” It irritates me that these nameless and nosy outsiders are prying into my life.

“We inquire after you because it is in our interest. You leave food out for us, and then we don’t have to chase down our own prey. We like that. But why aren’t you sleeping?”

“It’s October, and that’s a difficult month for me.”

“Why?” The larger shadow crouched, then pounced on something small.

“October is one of the worst months of the year for my office.” As I spoke the first cat twisted to groom himself. “It’s also the anniversary of a lot of unpleasantness: my house was burglarized twice in October, I got divorced in October, Hurricane Wilma was in October…”

“Hallowe’en is in October, too.”

“True, but these days the holiday only stresses me out. I set my expectations too high, the world’s attitude toward the celebration has changed so much that it has lost most of its wonder for me. I end up sad.”

“Your people become sad during your holidays. We know this from living with single people.”

The fatter cat lifted her face from whatever she’d been gnawing. “This is your holiday and you cannot enjoy it. Most do not even celebrate, so you cannot share your anger. This is why you cannot sleep.”

“So then tell me, O wise cats, how I can solve this situation. How can I regain some of the spirit of the holiday and bring joy back into my life?”

Their eyes vanished into blackness as they turned away from me.

“That’s it? No answers? Just wander into the shadows and leave?”

Twin blurs leapt through the streetlight’s circle into the shrubbery and were gone. I picked up my glass and struggled to my feet. Four o’clock, I thought, as I entered the house.

Badfoot was waiting by the door. I decided to pick his brain a bit. “Hey, tell me something. In August I had a conversation with Greywhite on the porch and he didn’t reply in such a direct fashion. Why’re they talking to me now?”

As I walked toward the bedroom, I heard him say: “It’s October now.”

[Originally published 20 October 2006]

Make-Up

As previously mentioned, my mother made most of my childhood Hallowe’en costumes. Among the various paper maché masks, painted bedsheets, and crafted horns, one costume stood out as a favorite. I don’t know how the idea came to me; it could have come from a cartoon, a Tarzan comic, a Hardy Boys book, or anything. I wanted to be a Witch Doctor.

A paper grocery bag was covered with newspaper and floured water to make a hard shell, and then painted with garish “tribal markings” in tempera paint. A dowel rod was painted black and had a plastic skull impaled on the end, with some beads inside to make it rattle menacingly. Chicken bones were soaked in vinegar for days to make them rubbery, then strung together on black thread for a necklace. A grass skirt was woven out of something, I don’t know what. (My mother was a genius at crafts, a skill I sorely lack.) And a set of long underwear, a pair of white socks, and a pair of white gloves went into the washing machine with boxes of brown RIT dye, to give me a removable chocolate brown skin.

Yes: I spent that Hallowe’en virtually in blackface, and it was one of the best costumes I ever had.

All I can offer in defense of my costume choice is that I truly didn’t know any better. In those days — and to a kid as divorced from reality as I was — there was no difference between the jungles of Africa and the jungles of Venus except that the latter seemed to have more dinosaurs. It was exotic, it was eerie, it had bones, and it would make a great mask. In the mid 1960s not even my progressive parents would have thought there was anything wrong with that, although I do remember some otherwise inexplicable laughter coming from certain neighborhood adults, but it was Hallowe’en. Why make a big deal out of it?

Off I went, shaking my rattle, shouting gibberish, and collecting a sack full of Mary Janes and peanut butter taffy.

Vintage Hallowe'en makeup
Warning: Not for use in Arizona.

This is actual vintage Hallowe’en make-up from the 1950s: Spook; Indian; Chinese; Minstrel/Zulu; Mexican. Somehow I’ve ended up with a full display box full of these packages of “professional character make-up,” unopened. It’s really pretty horrifying to modern sensibilities, but back then it wasn’t uncommon for people to dress up their kids as any number of racial stereotypes. In fact, one of the most common non-monster costumes of the era was the Hobo: take off your shoes, put on a set of worn out clothes, rub some burnt cork around your mouth for a beard, tie a bandanna to the end of an old broom handle, and you were ready to go. Of course, today it’s more difficult to imagine dressing your kids up as homeless people for the holiday; it hits a little too close to the mark.

Actually, these are not for use anywhere outside of a Klan rally
Actually, not for use anywhere but a Klan party.

It is sometimes argued that those were simpler days. It’s true — it’s always simpler to be a racist than to look at people as individuals, or to recognize that cultures other than your own have intrinsic value. Doing the right thing doesn’t need to be easy, though. It just needs to be right.

For what it is worth, I wish I hadn’t asked for that costume back when I was seven. I wish I’d known better back then.

I wish more people knew better today.

[Photos by Scott Branch. Vintage racist make-up from the author’s collection.]

The Blair Witch Project

Opening titles

The premise of The Blair Witch Project is nicely summarized in that frame. Three college kids go into the woods to shoot a documentary about a local legend, the Blair witch, and never come out again. A year later some other kids find a bag containing their gear and tapes. The footage is chronologically assembled by a production company at the request of the mother of one of the students; that’s what you are watching.

Through this “found footage,” we get the story of a three ordinary kids who set out to make a clever little documentary and get in way over their heads. The legend of the witch is told by locals who are interviewed on camera; it’s a melange of stories of a child murdered from the 1940s and a witch from the 1700s, with very few details emerging. There’s something about an old cemetery in the woods, and the house where the more recent murders took place. Armed with these few facts, a map, a bunch of gear, and minimal camping supplies, they set off for a weekend in the woods to see what they can find.

Sinister stick men

Even at the abrupt end of the film we know little more than when we started. This is a film about legends, and uncertainty is part of the package. A quasi-realistic horror film should never explain everything, because in the real world, no one is going to step in and fill in the plot details. (Note that science fiction usually operates on different principles; that’s a discussion for another time.) In the end we still don’t know who or what the witch is, or even what happened to the filmmakers, but that’s okay. We know that whatever it was, it was bad.

Viewed by itself, Blair Witch is a suspenseful film. Unlike virtually every horror film made in the last 20-30 years, it relies of the imagination of its audience to build terror. We are getting a partial first-person account, so we only see what the characters see, from their own point of view. At night, with the camera’s mounted light as the only illumination, the most you get are glimpses of something in the shadows. Just like the students, you only know there is something in the woods, and it’s something bad. All of the details are left to your overwrought and unsettled imagination.

Dirty wall

Of course, the film’s reputation rests on it’s intrinsic quality as a horror film, but also earns a place in film history for its pioneering use of a fake web site to help in the promotion. In 1998, a year before the film opened, the writer/directors launched a site talking about the backstory of the legend. Details were included about the missing filmmakers, local legends, brief snippets of raw footage, and so on. This led to a “is it real or is it fake” word-of-mouth campaign, particularly among those people new to the Internet. Add in a fake documentary aired on the Sci Fi Channel and you have a once-in-a-lifetime buzz.

The other noteworthy factor is the camera work. Every bit of the film is hand-held footage, with all the incessant motion that entails. It does impart verisimilitude to the film, as well as an immediacy it would otherwise lack. It isn’t the first film to use the “hand-held footage found on location” trick — that honor belongs to Cannibal Holocaust — but it was certainly the first one to get widespread attention. (This means I can hold it responsible for Cloverfield, but I’ll let that slide.) This is the gimmick on which much of the film rests, but for many, it gets in the way of proper appreciation of the movie. If you are prone to motion sickness, watching the film can be a challenge, which is a shame, as it is otherwise a neat little horror movie.

And who would have guessed? The official movie site is still up, including the background material!