Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction For The Season–This Old House

So Halloween is finally here, and to wrap up this gloriously creepy celebration, I’ve got a spooky little treat for you.  Here, for the first time ever, is a previously unpublished short story, This Old House.  Betrayal, adultery and a quiet little rundown farmhouse as the unwelcome setting for murder.  Read on and enjoy! 

Thanks for reading over the past two weeks of The 13 Days of Halloween here at The Watershed Chronicle.  I sincerely hope you’ve found something to scare the wits out of you during this best of all holiday seasons.  Happy Halloween!

This Old House

She was a rather large house for this part of the country, made even more so by the utter bareness of her interior.  The constant winds glided over the surrounding cornfields, slamming into her graying clapboard sides with all the force a good, unimpeded gust could muster.  Her paint had peeled away years ago, leaving her looking as many people do when they age; old, gray and alone.  Her now-antique boards would occasionally bend or swell, producing the eerie creaking sound that so many young children suspect is a ghost or ghoul from beyond come to claim their souls, but is only just the settling of her weight over the ages.

This house has a personality, molded over decades of spring plantings and autumn harvests, through the good years and the bad.  Three generations of farmers had called her home, and the impressions they left behind will never fully be wiped away.  Over the decades, she had learned to be protective of her inhabitants, as a good mother should, keeping a watchful eye, a constant vigil over their safety.  But the people had left her long ago now, to wither away silent and alone here in this field.  Cobwebs make up her only furnishings, and virtually every window in her has been broken.

Nevertheless, standing here idle, she still looks strangely inviting.  To a weary traveler who has been moving through the brown and yellowed corn, the cool autumn air having drained the life from their once-brilliant emerald leaves, the sight of her on the horizon could be nothing if not a blessing.

Yes, she is alone now, and yet she is happy.  After years upon years of large families taking up every available inch of her space, and all of the hustle and bustle that the people brought with them, she has grown to appreciate the calm and restfulness she now has in abundance.  This aging home has grown quite used to quiet evenings listening to the winds rustle through the corn stalks.  Her only recent inhabitants have been the occasional field mouse taking advantage of her ample shelter after a long, hard day of roaming between the rows, in the constant search for food.  She does so enjoy the peace of her existence now, her time winding toward its inevitable end and, deep down, she doesn’t want it to be broken.

But on this night, the calm that she has so long cherished is snapped by something stirring in one of her upstairs bedrooms.  A series of moans emanating from the small room where the youngest children used to live and laugh and play and cry, echoed through her hollowed-out halls.  Inside that room was a man, struggling as he tried to regain consciousness.

The unknown man fought to get to his feet, but in his visibly weakened and unsteady condition, he immediately tumbled back to the floor, the resulting thud thundering through the old house.  A small candle illuminated the room, and the shadows from the flickering light exaggerated every false, uneasy move.

“Where the hell am I?” he asked groggily, to no one in particular.

The man lifted his head, scanning the empty room, searching for any landmarks or other clues to give away his whereabouts.  It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the inconsistent lighting.  The flame of the candle bouncing in the breeze, drifting through the busted glass of the window pane, didn’t allow for very good visibility.

Soon, however, his eyes did adjust, and the man realized he was alone in the filthy, rundown room.  The chill breeze from outside caused goosebumps to rise on his exposed forearms.  From his position on the dusty wooden floor, he looked out through the last remnants of jagged glass in the window, and could see a nearly full moon, partially obscured by passing clouds.

He cast his clearing gaze on the candle, which, other than the soft streams of moonlight, provided the only source of light in the room.  From the look of it, the long, thin taper candle had been lit very recently.  It was still somewhat rounded at the top, and no streams of melted wax had yet made their way trickling down its sides.

As his strength slowly began to return, the man once again attempted to climb to his feet, this time far more successfully as he finally made it, unsteady but upright.  He slowly circled the room a few times to make certain his legs were fully back beneath him, with light wisps of dust kicked up by each shuffling step, before beginning to explore.

“What happened to me?” he thought to himself as he knelt down to pick up the candle by its small brass holder, being sure to keep a cupped hand around the flame to stop it from blowing out.  Getting a closer look, the candle definitely did not appear to have been lit for very long, but who had done it?  And, more importantly, were they still around?  He searched his mind, trying desperately to remember what he had last been doing, scouring his still-fuzzy thoughts for any hints as to where he was or how he could have gotten here.

“Well, Will my boy,” he finally said to himself.  “You really did it this time.  Must’ve tied one on and now you have no clue where you are.  Or worse yet, who you’re with.”  He looked around the shabby, vacant room one last time, his glance hovering over several patches in the walls where the old plaster had fallen away into odd little piles of refuse on the floor, revealing the rows of thin wooden slats underneath.  “Maybe this is Hell.”

Will finally walked through the open doorway and immediately found himself at the end of a long hall.  Three other doorframes lined the way, and each was standing as open as the one he had just awakened in.  He peered into each room as he went by, passing the candle just over their thresholds, finding similar empty, dust caked wooden floors and busted out windows.

At the far end of the hall, he paused, staring down a large staircase leading to the ground floor of the decrepit old house.  Looking to the bottom, he recognized some small bursts of light that could only have been made by another flickering candle somewhere nearby on the first level. 

“So whoever brought me to this dump must still be around,” he thought to himself as he slowly worked his way down the stairs.  He took each step as lightly as he could, recoiling at every creak of his weight on the well-worn boards.  Without knowing what was going on, exactly, he figured it was best to keep as low a profile as possible.

But as Will reached the bottom of the staircase, he instantly saw the futility of his plan.  Sitting there, in a large room off to his left, he saw another man hunched over a small table, the candle that was throwing light in his direction standing squarely in its center.  The man was holding a deck of cards, playing something that looked like solitaire.  After a brief glance at his surroundings, the table and chair seemed to be the only furniture in the building.  Will considered his position for a moment, thinking better of a fleeting notion to make a break for the closed front door about five feet in front of him.  He finally turned to face the other man and was about to say something when the stranger caught sight of him and jumped up from the chair, leaving the cards scattered about on the table.

“Oh, I see you’ve finally decided to join me back here in the realm of the living,” the man said.  Will’s heart sunk as he immediately recognized the voice as that of Jack Person, one of his co-workers at Wilpon & Heccht Insurance, where he had pointlessly toiled away for the past decade.

“Yeah, Jack,” Will began, uneasily, “What the hell is going on here?”

“You mean you don’t know?  I must’ve put too much of that stuff in your food.  You know, I got it from a cousin of mine who works for a drug company just outside of New York.  He sent me a vial of that shit and doesn’t tell me how much to use.  All he said was that it’ll knock out a 500 pound man for three or four hours, and I figured, what the hell?  The worst it’ll do is kill ya, and I was gonna do that anyway.”

Will froze as he saw Jack pull a small handgun from behind his back and point it at him.  Then, suddenly, a loud bang rang out from somewhere up the stairs, startling both men, causing them each to shudder in surprise.  For an instant, Will had even thought he’d fired.

“Damn wind,” Jack said, still pointing the gun directly at Will’s chest.  “It’s been blowing the doors in this dump shut all night.  They really ought to tear this place down before it falls down.”

“Now, hold on a minute, Jack,” Will said, trying to sound soothing.  “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m sure we can work something out.  There’s no need to do anything drastic.”

The sudden fear for his life caused memories of earlier in the evening to come flowing back into Will’s apparently drug-addled mind.  He had gone to dinner at Jack’s house at his invitation, despite his better judgment.  He had expected to see Jack’s wife, Kathy, there–she was the one who had talked him into going, after all, convincing him that not to would be suspicious–but when he arrived, she was nowhere to be found.  Jack told him that she had gone home to see her parents, something about her mother becoming suddenly very ill.  Their affair had gone on for over a year without Jack’s knowledge, or so they had thought.

“Didn’t think I’d catch you, did ya?” Jack said, waving the gun in Will’s direction.  “You two thought you were so damned slick!”

“Where’s Kathy?” Will asked, hesitantly.

“I told you, she went home to her parents,” Jack chuckled as he spoke.  “At least part of her did, anyway.”

“What did you do?” Will demanded, sounding about as forceful as he could, the sick feeling in his stomach getting worse at the thought of what might have happened to Kathy.

“Boy, that was one helluva dinner earlier, wasn’t it?  Some really good stew.  That Kathy sure knows how to put food on the table,” Jack said, still cackling. 

“Where’s Kathy, Jack?” Will asked again, this time with less force.  He didn’t really want the answer.

“You know, we almost didn’t have it.  While I was cooking, I realized that we didn’t have any fresh meat, so I had to improvise,” Jack said, and through the darkened haze, Will could make out the giant grin on his face as he spoke.  “I always said she had good taste.”

Just the thought of what Jack implied made Will double over, dropping the candle by his side.  His stomach, already twisting and roiling from fear and the after-effects of the drugs, seized mightily and he spilled its contents all over the floor in several massive heaves.

“Aw, what’s wrong?” Jack asked, faking sympathy.  “A little cannibalism’s good for ya.  Keep’s the cholesterol down.”

“You sick bastard!” Will sputtered from his bent over posture, the vile, acidic taste of the vomit still fresh in his mouth.  Jack just laughed heartily, still pointing the gun at him.

“You won’t get away with this,” he said, wiping away some of the vomit from his lips.  It was a pathetic and cliched last attempt to put doubt into Jack’s mind, but Will, himself, knew it wasn’t at all convincing.  How could he be?

“Will, my friend, I already have gotten away with it.  I’ve been planning this for weeks.  I liquidated all of my assets and have the cash out in my car,” he said.  “After I get rid of you, I’m on my way to living out the rest of my days as the king of some Caribbean paradise somewhere.”

Jack walked over to where Will was still hunched over, his footsteps echoing lightly through that large room, and placed the barrel of the gun to the side of his head.

“Say goodnight, Will.”

At that instant, just before he was set to fire, the front door of the house that was closed directly behind Jack inexplicably flew open, blindsiding him and sending him and the gun flying into the large, open part of the room.  Will saw his chance.  He lunged across the floor toward where the gun now rested, just underneath the table, and grabbed it before Jack was able to compose himself.  Will stood up quickly, the sick feeling in his stomach passing, replaced by a burning rage, and pointed the gun at his would-be murderer.

“Say Goodnight, Jack,” Will said, but before he could fire, the house began to tremble.  Will staggered as the floor beneath him rocked, and he could hear doors all around the house slamming shut, then open, then shut, again and again.  He looked down at Jack, who was now curled up in the fetal position, visibly frightened.  Will wasn’t certain if he was afraid because of the sudden turn of events or the unexpected rumblings of the old house, and he really didn’t care.  The bastard deserved to be afraid, after what he’d done to Kathy.

“It’s just a damn earthquake,” Will said, the trembling still noticeable beneath his feet.  “We haven’t had one of those for years, but I have to say, the timing of this one was impeccable.  I’ll see ya around, Jack.”

Will steadied his aim through the rumbling, and squeezed off three rounds directly into the man’s chest.  Just as Jack let out his final breath, the shaking stopped as suddenly as it had started, and the peace and quiet of the secluded, rundown house was restored.

“See, I told you it was just an earthquake,” Will said, as he bent over and fished Jack’s car keys from his front pants pocket.   As he stood up, he tossed the gun onto the prone body and headed for the still-open front door.  Before he stepped outside, Will paused and turned back toward the body on the floor. 

“The king of some Caribbean island sounds pretty good to me, old buddy.  Thanks for the cash.”

He gave the now-departed Jack a short salute, then headed out onto the front porch, passing through the same door that only moments earlier had saved him from being the one shot dead on the floor.  As Will headed down the four steps leading from the porch to the overgrown walkway leading away from the house, he was day dreaming about the sun and the sand, and how much Kathy would have loved it.  Oh well, he thought to himself, there’s always other women.  Will smiled softly, but as he placed his foot on the bottom step, the board gave way under his weight and his leg went crashing through. 

Will lost his balance and pitched forward, but his leg was still stuck, shin deep, in the front step.  He heard the sickening crack of bone as his body fell but his leg couldn’t follow.  There was a momentary sharp explosion of pain from his leg, cut short only when his body twisted and his torso met the partially rotted picket fence that lined the walkway, impaling himself on one of the few remaining pointed posts still upright.

Will used the last of his strength to turn his head slightly toward the old house.  The final thing he saw from this vantage point was the front porch, with its railings somehow still intact, almost glowing in the soft moonlight.  He thought for just an instant that it looked as though the house were smiling.

Undaunted by the happenings of the night, the wind continued on its great, endless journey through the corn.  The old house settled once more in the calming breeze, a few various creaks and moans betraying her years.  Then, once again, she returned to having only the rustling stalks to break the silence.  This house, even at her age, has a personality.  And she does not appreciate having her quiet evenings disturbed.

This Old House, copyright 2011, Dan Meadows and Watershed Publications.  All rights reserved.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The 13 Days of Halloween: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Earlier, I wrote about the plentiful reasons I believe that Edgar Allan Poe is the greatest American writer.  Well, to support my assertion, here are a few of my favorites from Poe’s many and varied literary efforts. Given that his work was written over a century and a half ago, they are now well beyond copyright.  Click on the titles of any of the stories or poems listed below and you can read the associated work in its entirety.

The Raven

Is this the best poem ever written?  Quite possibly.  By now, everyone knows the gist of this one.  Exactly how far reaching has this work’s influence been?  We’ve got an NFL team in Baltimore named after it.  When will this poem’s effects ever die out? Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

The Tell Tale Heart

Here’s another piece that everyone, and I mean everyone, is intimately familiar with.  The imagined sound of the murdered man’s beating heart under the floorboards has become an all-encompassing metaphor for inescapable guilt.

Fall of the House of Usher

Has there ever been a more bleak description of a house and surrounding landscape than the opening of this tale?  It’s an intimate little story about a young woman’s inability to escape her family’s long history of madness as it finally comes crashing down around her and her brother.

Annabel Lee

This is another one of Poe’s masterworks of poetry.  While it doesn’t possess the wide-spread longevity of The Raven, the deep emotional scars from a loss of love resonates throughout.  What else can you say about the tale of a love so great that even the angels in heaven were envious enough to kill the fair maiden out of spite?

The Cask of Amontillado

Somewhat similar in tone to The Tell Tale Heart and The Black Cat, this is the story of a well-to-do wealthy man’s attempt to steal the wife of a local drunkard.  In the end, the rich man’s avarice is his undoing, as he’s led to a death walled into an ancient catacomb by the temptation of some particularly rare and fine wine.

Ligeia

An odd tale of death and possible resurrection.  The narrator, who happens to be an opium addict, marries the hauntingly beautiful Ligeia, only to see her fall ill and die.  Later, he marries again, but his new bride also is stricken and dies.  However, her body goes through a process of slow revival after death, eventually rising from the dead as a reborn Ligeia.  Did she really come back or was it all an opium dream?

The Murders In The Rue Morgue

Possibly the very first detective story ever written, this tale introduces the amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin to the world, a character that laid the groundwork for Sherlock Holmes and virtually every other literary detective since.  In this tale, there are two mysterious murders, and it’s up to Dupin to use his considerable deductive reasoning to suss out the inhuman murderer.

The Conqueror Worm

The third poem on this list, and by far the least well-known, this one has stuck with me ever since I’ve first read it.  All of human existence is but a tragic play and, in the end, it’s the worms that feast on their bodies that are the heroes.  This poem was originally a part of another story on this list dealing with tragedy and death, Ligeia.

The Oblong Box

During a sea voyage, a man notices his friend has brought along this large oblong box and kept it with him in his stateroom.  Every night, his friend’s wife leaves the cabin and he can hear his friend inside opening the box and sobbing throughout the night.  Much like in the movie Seven, “What’s in the box?” is a very pertinent question.

The Masque of the Red Death

Talk about some snotty rich people getting their comeuppance!  This tale is about a cruel prince who seals himself and a large group of nobles into his castle to escape a plague ravaging the countryside.  They decide to have a masquerade ball one evening, and a very special guest appears, the Red Death himself, there to infect them all.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween concludes…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: Psycho Killers

I watch a lot of horror movies, even bad ones.  Sometimes, especially bad ones because I’ve found that even a terrible horror movie is still more entertaining than a good romantic comedy.  Nothing frightens me more than the prospect of sitting through another Jennifer Aniston Rom-com or pretty much anything with Julia Roberts, for that matter.  Terrifying!

Over the years, I’ve consumed hundreds, if not thousands, of horror movies.  Even the bad ones can offer something unique or interesting to take away.  Much like Hamlet’s line, “The play’s the thing…”, in horror, the killer’s the thing. Without an interesting killer, your movie is ultimately doomed.

I have watched some horrible films over the years that have interesting or unique killers, and I find that I’ll watch them again just for that element, despite the fact that I know the movie itself, frankly, sucks.  It’s sorta like listening to an album with two or three good songs but sitting through the lesser 10 anyway just because the good tunes are worth it.

So, here are seven of my favorite horror movie killers from over the years.  Some of the films they were featured in were pretty good, but some were admittedly lousy.  It doesn’t really matter, though, because, as I said, the killer’s the thing.

Jigsaw

Yeah, I know, everybody’s sick of the Saw franchise, myself included.  Besides, the guy died, like, four movies ago.  But think back to the original, do you remember that it was actually a very good film, and unique for its time?  I know sequels can sap the life out of a movie, especially a horror movie, but let’s not forget how cool the original concept was.

How can you not love a killer who turns people’s weaknesses on themselves but gives them a possible chance at redemption and survival, albeit with sometimes horrifying sacrifices?  Jigsaw wasn’t so much a mass murderer as he was a psychologist.  But rather than simply having his patients drone on endlessly about their problems hoping to stumble onto an epiphany, Jigsaw gives you 60 seconds to cut the key out from behind your eye before the apparatus strapped to your face tears your head in half.  Now that’s what I call therapy!

John Doe

What’s in the box?  Can anyone ever forget the immortal words of Brad Pitt in Seven when first suspecting that his wife has become a victim of a nameless, religious minded serial killer acting out the seven deadly sins to “turn each sin upon the sinner”?  John Doe was somewhat like Jigsaw in that respect, with one key difference:  there was no redemption in Doe’s machinations, even for himself.

Kevin Spacey played the role to perfection, and the intricately plotted out series of killings was as impressive for their inter-connectedness as for their sheer brutality.  The best part is, he won in the end.  Doe led the police by the nose throughout the entire film, and his plan worked out precisely the way he wanted it, down to the very minute.  And how can you not love a guy who gave Gwynneth Paltrow the most emotionally affecting moment of her career, as a head in a box?

Victor Crowley

Unlike the first two killers on this list who were obsessive and intricate planners of elaborate, meaningful deaths, Victor Crowley was a straight-up force of nature.  The movie Hatchet wasn’t a great film, but it was an awesome horror movie.  Crowley reportedly died as a deformed boy when he  accidentally took a hatchet to the face from his father when he was desperately trying to save Victor from a house fire.  Now he’s back, living in the family home in the secluded Louisiana swamps, and woe be unto anyone who crosses his path.

Crowley wasn’t creative or thoughtful with his prey.  He pretty much just tore people apart with his bare hands, ripping off limbs, snapping necks, breaking people in half across trees, all while groaning and growling indecipherable sounds from his horribly deformed face.  Yeah, it’s not great acting work, but it was certainly entertaining.

Jason’s Mom

The original Friday the 13th movie didn’t have Jason as the undead, unkillable monster as protagonist, it was his mom.  An otherwise sweet looking older woman, dressed in a nice sweater, stalking Camp Crystal Lake slaughtering the teen-age counselors to get revenge for a group of horny teenagers letting her son drown at camp years earlier because they were too busy drinking, smoking weed and hooking up to pay attention. 
This woman was flat-out nuts, going around spouting “kill her mommy” in her best squeaky five-year-old-boy voice.  This movie was truly great, combining horror with murder mystery.  It was like a psychopathic version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.  Not to mention a very young Kevin Bacon getting skewered through the throat with an arrow.  In the end, Jason’s mom lost her head, quite literally, unleashing a 30 year rampage of Jason’s vengeance that took him to Manhattan, Hell, outer space and back again.  Talk about influencial!

Anton Phibes

The Abominable Dr. Phibes was a Vincent Price take on the intricately planned revenge murder sequence.  Phibes was in a horrible car accident that disfigured him and killed his beloved wife.  Years later, Phibes comes back to kill everyone involved in allowing his wife to die on the operating table.

What makes this great is that Phibes didn’t just kill them, he planned each death to correspond to one of the biblical plagues on Egypt.  Brilliant!  To wrap it up, he created a very Jigsaw-like challenge for the lead surgeon to remove a key from near the heart to free his son before having his face eaten off by acid.  Phibes definitely had style.

Pazuzu

Pazuzu was the demon who took up residence in sweet little Reagan in The Exorcist.  Not only did he twist people’s heads around and toss them out windows, but he turned a nice little girl into a drunken, foul-mouthed sailor, and made projectile vomiting cool.

Pazuzu really came into his own in the Exorcist III, though, when he possessed a patient in an asylum.  During that film, he bounced from patient to patient, sending them out to lop off people’s heads with those giant, stainless steel clipper things morticians sometimes use.  Has anyone ever invented a perfectly legitimate tool that looks more like something from a homicidal maniac’s Christmas list than those things?  They’re spring-loaded hedge clippers from pruning people’s limbs.  Totally creepy!

Death

Death is the ultimate psycho killer.  And if you’ve seen any of the Final Destination movies, you know that he also sports a creative side for taking out his victims.  Death doesn’t just toss a little cancer at you, he creates a freaky chain of events, sort of like a gory version of the game Mousetrap, that culminated in his intended victim being disembowled, crushed, exploded, impaled or otherwise dismembered in new and interesting ways.  Has there ever been a series of films with more moments where viewers have to turn their heads suddenly and shout “whoa!” at the sudden carnage than these movies?

You also can’t beat death, no matter how hard you try.  In all these movies, the group of survivors desperately try to defeat death’s plan, but everyone ultimately ends up dead anyway.  It’s the ultimate exercise in futility.  And say what you want about Saving Private Ryan, but I’ll take the opening car crash scene in Final Destination 2 as the pinnacle in awesome movie-opening carnage and mayhem.  Death is a total bad-ass killer, and he definitely has his plans in order.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween concludes…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Alfred Hitchcock is one of those Hollywood types whose films can be associated with various types of creative work.  Thrillers are probably what he’s best known for as, over the years, Hitch cranked out many excellent films with espionage, murder and other general all-around mayhem as the main component to their plots.  Hitchcock even frequently discussed his use of the MacGuffin, put simply, whatever it was the protagonists were fighting over, be that secret plans or, typically in his films, some vague, unspecified crucial thing that sets up all the thriller elements.

While I do seriously enjoy Hitch’s various array of thrillers, I’ve always been more of a fan of his horror films.  While many of his most famous works straddled the line between multiple genres, there are a few that I feel fall squarely into the horror category, and I believe they include some of the very cream of his cinematic efforts.

Before I get into my list, though, I want to give a specific shout out to four of his films, in particular, that simply straddled that line too far on the thriller side to be considered horror.  I also very briefly considered The Lodger, which is definitely in the horror genre as it’s based on Jack The Ripper, but ruled it out immediately.  It was Hitch’s first film, a silent one at that, and simply doesn’t hold up to the standards set by the other movies listed here.

I really wanted to have Vertigo on this list, mostly because it’s my single favorite Hitchcock film.  Jimmy Stewart gives simply an awesome performance as the troubled and almost creepy-obsessive main character.  And the plot, with its hints at ghosts, dopplegangers and an all around unhappy ending really had me struggling to overcome what I knew was true.  Vertigo is a sublime example of a richly textured psychological thriller, not a horror film.  It pained me to do so, but Vertigo is out.

Speaking of great performances from Jimmy Stewart, I had nearly a carbon copy internal conflict over the fantastic Rear Window.  Stewart was again wonderful, this time as a curious but helpless man stranded in his apartment, only able to watch a murderous plot unfold through his telescope, powerless to do anything about it.  In the end, though, even more than Vertigo, Rear Window was just too clearly a psychological thriller to make it on this list.

Another film I was compelled to leave out despite myself was Grace Kelly’s fabulous turn in Dial M For Murder.  A husband’s ruthless plot to have his wife murdered in a fake robbery goes awry when she manages to kill her would-be assailant.  Unfortunately for Kelly, she herself ends up being arrested for murder.  This is truly a great film, but after her arrest, the movie plays much more like a murder mystery than a horror film.  Despite my initial consideration, deciding to leave this one off was actually easier than either Vertigo or Rear Window.

The fourth film I seriously considered was Strangers On A Train.  In this one, Guy meets a mysterious man on a train trip who offers a bizarre bargain: he’d kill Guy’s wife in exchange for Guy doing away with the man’s father, thereby solving both of their problems.  Guy says no, but the man carries out his end anyway soon thereafter, by killing his wife.  While the setup has some elements of horror, this movie ultimately becomes a thriller/blackmail film.

So, which of Hitchcock’s films did make the cut?  Here are what I consider to be his five best actual horror films:

Psycho

Ok, so this one is obvious.  Psycho may well be the best horror movie ever made, and if not, it’s on an extremely short list.  Written by horror great Robert Bloch, Psycho set the standard for quiet, unassuming nice guy cum serial killer stories.  There’s a creepy old house, a creepy rundown motel, split personalities, cross dressing, desicated corpses and more.  Do I even need to mention the shower scene, quite possibly the single most famous scene in cinema history?  This is a totally creepy masterpiece of horror, no doubt about it.

The Birds

Like Psycho, there is simply no question that this is first, foremost and completely a horror film.  What starts as a seemingly innocent romantic flirtation turns downright frightening as a small coastal California town becomes ground zero for an all-out war on mankind by the area’s bird population.  Made well before the current environmental “green” movement, Mother Nature is pissed in this horror classic and she’s not gonna take it anymore.  Has there ever been a creepier scene than the end of this film, where the birds perched on every available surface magnanimously provide a brief reprieve from their all-out assault to give the few remaining people an opportunity to give up and get out?  If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Rope

Some may say that this film is a thriller, but I disagree.  It is very much a horror story.  Two college friends decide to kill a third friend before a graduation party just to see what it’s like to murder someone.  They then proceed to stuff the body into a trunk, put a table cloth over it and serve the party guests refreshments on it.  If that’s not horror, then I don’t know what is.  The cold, calculated manner of the killing, and the way in which the stronger of the two friends totally relished every moment of the tension during the lead up to and throughout the party was just simply psychopathic.  Besides, I already ruled out two great Jimmy Stewart Hitchcock films, no way I was leaving off a third.

This film may actually be more famous for the way it was filmed, presented in real-time, cleverly masking cuts to make it appear as one long continuous shot.  Those elements helped to build up the tension right from the start, opening as it did with the last gasp of the dying man, strangled by the title character, the rope.  Murder, madness and unfeeling evil sounds a lot like a horror movie to me.

Shadow of a Doubt

What many people, including the man himself, consider to be Hitchcock’s finest film, this is another thriller that I believe totally fits the bill as a horror movie.  Joseph Cotten is charming Uncle Charlie, come to pay a visit to his namesake niece in California.  What the young girl doesn’t know is that sweet Uncle Charlie is also the Merry Widow Killer, seducing and killing a series of wealthy widows, and part of his visit is motivated by a need to flee one of his recent bloody conquests. 

During his visit, young Charlie begins to suspect and finally confirms her Uncle’s murderous ugly side, and has to survive an attempt on her life, leading him to a gruesome face-first meeting with an on-coming train.  Serial killer, beautiful young girl marked for death, and a brutal comeuppance for the killer at the end.  Yup, this is a horror movie.

Frenzy

Hitchcock’s final film and one of his most horrifying.  The Necktie Killer is stalking London, strangling unsuspecting woman with, you guessed it, a necktie.  This film features one of the most disturbing scenes of rape and murder ever put on film, at least up until 1972, when this movie was released. 

Frenzy follows the killer as he plies his deadly trade all over town, and even leads police to pursue and arrest an innocent man for his crimes.  The murder scene alone, and I mean alone as it was so effective that it was the only actual murder shown in the film, rates this as a definite horror movie.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Like any other holiday, a cluster of unique rituals has grown up around Halloween.  They’re so common these days that we don’t even question them or how they came to be.  We see a jack o’ lantern and it is instantly associated with Halloween.  Same with wearing costumes, trick or treating, bobbing for apples, etc.  But where did these rituals come from?

Halloween, depending on who you talk to, and sometimes their particular religious leanings, is either a harmless harvest festival filled with parties and candy or a dangerous, unholy pagan holiday for worshipping the dark arts.  Holidays like Christmas and Easter have Christian roots yet have developed wide spread secular traditions and observances.  Halloween, in my mind is the same, with roots that lay not only in the ancient pagan traditions but in Roman and Christian traditions, as well.

Halloween itself developed from the pagan end of season Samhain festival.  As the Romans came into the picture, they integrated two of their holidays into the celebration; Feralia, a Roman day of observance for the dead, and Pomona, a day of worship for the goddess of fruit and trees.

Later, when Christianity began to take hold, November 1 became All Saints Day in remembrance of saints and martyrs, and November 2 was declared All Souls Day to honor the dead.  Eventually, the period from October 31 to November 2 became known at Hollowmas, with the term hallow being Old English for holy, which has developed over time into today’s Halloween.

The jack o’ lantern seems to me like it would have come from some long-forgotten ancient rite, but in reality, it originated from an old Irish folk tale with strong Christian overtones.  The story goes that a man named Stingy Jack tricked the devil on several occasions to assure that he would leave him be and not claim his soul when he died.  When the day finally did come, and Jack passed on, Heaven wouldn’t take him, and the devil, after being tricked repeatedly, didn’t want him either, so Jack was left to wander the earth for eternity carrying only a carved out turnip with a candle in it to light the way.

People then started putting carved, candle-laden veggies in their Windows at night to keep Jack away.  The tradition migrated to America, where pumpkins became the object of choice, apparently because they’re bigger, easier to carve and have more surface area for spooky faces to scare Jack away.

Bobbing for apples, on the other hand, has a decidedly more pagan foundation.  When the Romans first came to Britain, they brought the apple with them.  If you’ve ever sliced an apple in half, you’ll notice the seeds are reminiscent of a pentagram.  To the Celts at that time, the pentagram was a symbol of fertility, so they took to bobbing for apples during the Samhain festival as a way to predict who were the next villagers to be married.  Samhain was a time of year where the Celts believed it was possible to read the future and bobbing for apples was one way they tried.  It’s sorta like tossing the bouquet at a wedding, only much less festive.

The origins for Halloween costumes were decidedly less festive, as well.  Again, the Celts had a lot to do with it.  November 1 marked the end of summer for them, and the observance of Samhain included an element of sacrifice.  It was believed that this time of year, the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, and that the spirits of the dead would come back and wreak havoc on the people by destroying hard earned crops needed to survive the harsh winters. 

The Druid priests at that time would hold great sacrifices on the night of October 31.  During these rituals, the priests would wear elaborate costumes made from animal hides, and start bonfires, burning some of their crop yields and sacrificing some of their livestock in an attempt to appease the spirits of the dead.  Over the centuries, the sacrifices faded away, but the ritual of dressing in costumes has remained and thrived.

Trick or treating, which has become synonymous with dressing in costumes, and going door to door asking for candy has its origins in a medieval Christian ritual called souling where the poor would visit the homes of their neighbors and receive soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the dead.  Over the centuries, this practice changed, soon becoming just the children of the poor, then in costume, then adding on the slight threat of mischief if the home owner wasn’t forthcoming with food.  The entire practice has culminated in what we know today, groups of kids dressed as vampires, witches or Star Wars characters combing the neighborhoods, and you’d better have some candy bars on hand or you’ll likely find your house egged or toilet paper draped in your trees the next morning.

So, while Halloween does certainly have its earliest origins in pagan ritual, the holiday we know and celebrate today is actually based on a combination of pagan, Roman and Christian practices, along with more than a few secular goodies thrown in.  Candy corn, anyone?

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Perhaps as much as any genre out there, horror caters to the short story format.  In fact, I would argue that horror actually does the short story format better than most.  Given that is the way it is in print, then it is no surprise that their equivalent will show up in the movies and on TV.

I love horror anthologies.  I have shelves full of them in book form in my dining room.  I have copious anthology films on dvd, and even entire tv series on dvd, and some older ones on VHS, if you can believe that.  The horror story has always had the capacity to get its point across concisely and effectively, be that in a dozen pages, a half hour episode or a 45 minute 1/3 of a movie.

So, here are a few of my favorite anthology series and films.  I had a difficult time whittling this list down.  Who knew there were so many to choose from?

Tales From The Crypt

Beginning in the late 1980s and running seven seasons, Tales From The Crypt may well be the best horror series ever.  Based on the pulp horror comic of the same name from the ’50s, this show seamlessly blended scares, sometimes extreme gore and dark humor in a way that I just couldn’t get enough of.  It got to be so popular that name actors were lining up to get their turn at an episode. 

I’ve been sitting here for an hour trying to figure out what my favorite episode is, but I simply can’t.  Over the years, so many of them stick in my mind that I just can’t narrow it down.  The Christmas episode with the escaped lunatic dressed as Santa, the lumberjack episode where they literally split the only woman in camp down the middle, the struggling cafe that finds success serving a unique new menu item, the conjoined twin ice cream salesman where one twin gets killed in a robbery attempt, the escaped killer who kills the cop handcuffed to him and gets stalked across the desert by a hungry vulture, the salesman/con man who gets caught up with the most repugnant woman ever when Tim Curry played the whole backwards family, the haunted house episode with Morton Downey Jr. as an exploitation journalist, the one where Jon Lovitz wants to be a Shakespearean actor and wins a key role as Yorick’s skull in Hamlet–I could go on forever. And if I don’t stop, I will.

Creepshow

This may be my favorite anthology movie.  The cast was loaded with big names–Ed Harris, Ted Danson, Leslie Nielson among many, and told a variety of tales.  Father’s Day where a murdered wealthy patriarch returns from the grave for some cake, The Lonesome Death of Jordy Ferrill where an alien weed consumes everything in its path, including Stephen King, They’re Creeping Up On You where eccentric germaphobe E.G. Marshall gets overrun by bloodthirsty cockroaches, and The Crate where Hal Holbrook and friend find a unique way to dispose of his unbearable shrew of a wife.

But my favorite of the bunch is Something To Tide You Over.  Ted Danson is screwing around with Leslie Neilson’s wife, so to get even, Neilson buried them both up to their neck on the beach and watches via closed circuit tv as the tide comes in.  Needless to say, things take a horrible turn for Nielson, and he ends up the one buried neck deep in the sand.  I will simply never forget the end scene when the waves started to lap over Nielson’s head, with him cackling insanely, “I can hold my breath for a long time!”

There were two lesser sequels to this movie, but other than a brief high point or two–The Raft, for instance, from Creepshow 2 where the creepy oil slick in the secluded lake ate the stock group of horny, stoned, drunken teenagers–but neither film came close to the original.

Tales From The Darkside

This show from the early 1980s followed on in a tradition established by Rod Serling’s
excellent work with the Twilight Zone and later Night Gallery, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Outer Limits and preceded
The Ray Bradbury Theater and the harsher, more graphic Tales From the Crypt that I referenced earlier.

Episodes were written by a plethora of great writers, including Robert Bloch, George
Romero and Stephen King. One of King’s episodes, in particular, based on a short story of his, The Word Processor of the Gods, had a unique impact on me. Good horror tales are always morality fables, and this one was no different.  What would you do if you had a word processor that would make whatever you typed come true?
Would you use that power for good or let it destroy you? It was that kind of ethical quandary and commentary that brought me to horror fiction. In fantastic situations, would people stay grounded or would they get drunk on the new-found abilities?

Later on, they also made a Tales From The Darkside film that ranks among my favorite anthology movies, as well.  An all star cast that included Christian Slater and Steve Buscemi told three tales wrapped around a more modern take on the old witch in the gingerbread house, capturing small children and fattening them up for supper.

Watching David Johansen as a high end hitman struggling to put down a small black cat or Rae Dawn Chong as a tormented gargoyle were great, but Lot 249 was my favorite.  Based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story, of all things, what could be better than watching Steve Buscemi reanimating an ancient Egyptian mummy and having him act out the mummification ritual on unsuspecting victims?

The House That Dripped Blood

In the late ’60s to early ’70s, a British film company called Amicus cranked out an array of horror anthology films, many featuring Peter Cushing, loosely based on the horror comics of the ’50s.  Some even sported the titles of the comics, like Tales From The Crypt and Vault of Horror.  Most of them were surprisingly good, but my personal favorite is The House That Dripped Blood.

This film is a collection of four stories, all written by the great Robert Bloch, wrapped around the gruesome history of one particular house.  Starring Cushing and horror film great Christopher Lee, this movie has one of the better wrap-around stories in horror anthology film history.  Including tales about a muderous fictional character come to life, a creepy wax museum, some voodoo and a haunted cloak, The House That Dripped Blood isn’t just a movie with a very cool-sounding title, it backs it up in terrifying substance.

Masters of Horror

This series, which appeared on Showtime in 2005, took the Tales From The Crypt precedent a few steps further.  Running for two seasons, Masters of Horror featured individual episodes directed by some of the biggest names in horror cinema.  Admittedly, the episodes were a little uneven at times–the one where dead soldiers came back from the grave to vote stands out as particularly awful–but overall, there was more good than bad here.

Jennifer was a particularly creepy episode about a smoking hot girl with a demonic face who enchanted men to look over her and had a taste for fresh meat.  The Fair Haired Child told of a boy’s parents who engaged in an intricate ritual to bring their deceased son back to life.  The child itself, crawling around all herky-jerky still gives me the shivers.  Pelts with Meatloaf as a fur coat maker taken in by some enchanted raccoon pelts has a particularly gruesome ending.  And Pick Me Up is a great mano-y-mano duel between two serial killers.

My favorite episode, though, is The Black Cat with Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe struggling to stay atop his sanity with no money, a fatally ill wife and a heavy drinking habit.   Combs descends into a surreal madness before emerging with one of the most famous tales ever written.  This series may have been short-lived, but well worth the time.

Friday the 13th: The Series

This series, from the later part of the ’80s, has always been among my fondest memories of childhood tv. The Friday the 13th television series (no, it’s not about Jason) was an entire show based on the morality play.  The main characters had to go around hunting down cursed objects from their deceased uncle’s antique store, objects with the power to grant the owner their inner-most desires, at the cost of their souls.  Every week, we’d see the consequences of giving in to temptation.

The show was really very 1980′s, big hair and all. On one episode about a scarecrow who beheaded its owners’ enemies, there was even a macrame owl hanging on a bedroom door. I haven’t seen one of those
since, well, since 1987.  I think my favorite episode was about a woodchipper that would spit out cash depending on how much the person stuffed in the business end was worth.  Drop in a rich heiress and oodles of money came flying out.  But in the end, the guy who used it was sucked in himself, and all that came out was ground up gardener.  The episode was so cool, it never occurred to me to ask why the hell an antique store was selling a woodchipper in the first place.

Cat’s Eye

This is a 1985 film based on some short stories by Stephen King.  The title comes from a cat that serves as a unifying character, appearing in all three separate stories.  Previously, I mentioned how much I enjoyed King’s early short stories, and this film is made up of two of those. 

In The Ledge, a former tennis pro is made to traverse the thin ledge around a mobsters penthouse apartment after being caught screwing around with his wife.  The cat plays a tangental role, helping the tennis pro and working against the mobster.  Then, in Quitters Inc., James Woods signs up for a smoking cessation program only to discover that the primary motivation to quit is the threat that his wife and child would be brutally tortured if he continued to partake.  To hell with the patch and nicotine gum, cutting off one of your wife’s fingers every time you puff is a plan for people very serious about laying off the smokes.  The cat appears only briefly in this one, just long enough to have some electro shock demonstrated on him.

Finally, the cat plays a lead role in The General, battling it out with a soul-stealing troll to protect a young Drew Barrymore.  In the end, the cat wins and finds a permanent home as Barrymore’s guardian.  This isn’t the best movie ever made, but I definitely have a soft spot for it in my memory.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest of American Writers

One thing has always bothered me whenever a discussion turns to an argument about who is the top of the line amongst American writers.  That is, the guy I consider the best of the best is hardly ever listed as such.  Certainly, he gets a mention, somewhere in the top 10 typically, occasionally top 5, but those are often a rarity.  I think his exclusion is usually due to two long-standing biases against writers: one, he didn’t write novels and, two, his primary excellence was in writing horror.

I’m talking, of course, about Edgar Allan Poe.  Poe’s use of language is unmatched, in my opinion, in American literature.  No one could convey as palpable a sense of atmosphere in a simple sentence like he could.  Read a little Poe, and you can literally feel the chill in the air or smell the decay from a damp crypt. 

Poe was an expert in conveying emotions in subtle, indirect ways.  His use of language is nearly Shakespearean in scope and tone.  A short story of his is like a symphony in words.  To be sure, the emotions he chose to convey were almost uniformly dark, the atmospheres he created almost always dreary but, to me, that is what is best in Poe.  He never shied away from the shadows that creep over life, from the struggles and the hardships, the sometimes anguished loss and occasional bouts of madness that can consume us all.  His tales are exaggerations, often tinged with the supernatural, but underneath, I believe his words have more effectively spoken to those darker aspects of the human condition better than any American writer before or since.

Who really cares that he never wrote novels?  Novels are, in an historical sense, a pretty overrated medium and very often over-long, anyway.  And why should his primary focus on horror be an issue?  It’s a genre like any other, and often more effective at making larger points than any other.  Besides, one of Poe’s other great contributions to literature the world over, not just in America, is that he essentially invented the detective tale.  His sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin, is the forerunner of an entire class of literature populated by the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and infinite others.  How impressive was this accomplishment alone? Dupin first appeared in a story in 1841, about a decade before the term “detective” even came into popular use. 

Please, let’s also not forget that he was also a world-class poet.  The Raven, The Bells and Annabel Lee alone can attest to his skills within that particular discipline.

So who is his competition for this mythical honor of Greatest American Writer?  To be sure, there are many others who have been exquisite practitioners of the craft, and many more who have produced transcendent works.

There’s Hemingway, of course, always a popular number one choice.  But at this point, I think that may be more on reputation than actual skill.  Hemingway’s the best because a lot of people just assume he is.  Steinbeck is another popular choice but I’ve always found his prose so dry I needed a glass of water after each chapter.  Fitzgerald certainly left a masterwork in The Great Gatsby, probably even more topical these days as history seems to be repeating itself, but how many people can name anything else he wrote?  Hawthorne gave us the immortal Scarlet Letter, but his work is aging badly, unlike Poe’s which holds a certain timelessness. 

The only other American writer I could reasonably make a case for above Poe is Mark Twain.  Twain has had a similar vast, lasting cultural impact, and produced a prodigious body of work.  I still have Poe higher because of craftsmanship alone.  Say what you want about their collective greatness, and both are undoubtedly among the best to ever put pen to paper, Poe was a better pure writer than Twain.  Twain may have been better at knowing his audience and communicating with them at their level, but Poe possessed more skill and style, I believe.

Poe defined horror, was equally artful at both prose and poetry, created detective fiction and provided a lasting, deep, affecting style of writing that hasn’t been matched in American literature since.  He is, in my opinion, quite simply the best of all American writers. But don’t just take my word for it. Here are some of my favorite Poe efforts, complete with links to the full stories.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Today, for The 13 Days of Halloween, I have another piece of spooky short fiction.  It’s called The Trail, and it’s from my recently released short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  If there is a lesson to be learned here, its to always be prepared, especially when you go out on a day hike.  You just never know who you might meet.  And like all of us, the spirits get lonely sometimes, too.

The Trail

Aaron watched in growing fear as the shadows crept over the trees, shrouding the forest around him in an ever-increasing blanket of darkness.  The sounds of the animals rustling in the leaves, or the crickets chirping had seemed so natural and friendly earlier in the bright light of day.  This wooded landscape, so beautiful and awe-inspiring only a few hours ago, now seemed to be made up of the building blocks from his most horrid nightmares.  As the encroaching dark continued to drown out his vision, the formerly-welcoming array of sounds were beginning to take on an evil, unknown quality.  But at least he was still on the trail.

He has mis-timed how long the leisurely hike up the mountain would take.  By his best guess, the sun had just passed the horizon and Aaron was still at least three miles from where he had parked his truck.  The semi-darkness didn’t allow for a very good view of the path before him as he continued to scuffle along at a quickened pace.  One false step, and Aaron’s foot struck on a large rock protruding from the earth, causing him to lose his balance and topple to the ground, striking his elbow on another such jagged stone.  The sharp tinge of pain that shot up his arm forced a low yelp from Aaron in response.  He at least still had the capacity to muffle his cry so as not to attract undue attention to himself here, alone in the darkening forest.

Despite his growing apprehension, Aaron was slightly pleased he still managed to possess enough self-control to remain cautious.  Black bears and even some types of wild cats were known to roam these woods, and he wasn’t about to attract one if he could help it.  He collected himself from the ground and rubbed his sore elbow, feeling a small abrasion and a corresponding still-swelling bump, but luckily nothing was broken, this time.  With darkness continuing to fall, and his being without a flashlight or lantern of any sort, more such falls were almost inevitable.

From what he could still see through the shroud of trees above him, the sky was becoming increasingly overcast, as well.  That would effectively cut off any light he could have expected from the evening’s near-full moon.  Aaron couldn’t decide whether to continue on and further risk injury or try and find some sort of shelter nearby.  There appeared to be a clearing off to his left where he could build a fire.  If he stayed here, with no supplies except for a lighter, a small utility knife and a water bottle containing only a few more swallows, he would have to have a fire, he thought.  And now, he felt like a bigger fool than ever for his decision to leave his phone in the truck.  He’d wanted a nice, relaxing day, out of touch from the world constantly pushing at him through that little device.  Well, he got his wish. Aaron couldn’t be more out of touch with the world than he was right now.

He considered his predicament for a moment before deciding that a fire would be too risky.  If nothing else, the warmth would attract snakes, and that would be the last thing he needed.  But to stay here without a fire would be equally risky, if not worse.  The temperature was supposed to fall into the thirties overnight, and Aaron didn’t even have a well-insulated coat, let alone any blankets.  In the end, he thought he might be better off continuing onward, even in the dark, than to risk death from exposure.

“What the hell are you doin’ out here?” a voice suddenly called out through the darkness from somewhere behind Aaron, sending a stark fear bolting through him.  His mind instantly raced to all sorts of gruesome possibilities.  Maybe he had stumbled onto the killing grounds of some vicious mass murderer who lived out in these secluded woods.  It could be some whacko just waiting for people to get lost out here where help was nonexistent, so he could brutally kill them and use them for stew.

Aaron spun around to try and get a good look at this potential assailant.

“Uh, I, um, got a little mixed up and lost track of time,” Aaron said, knowing that it was probably not a good idea to give up too much information but figuring it was as good an explanation as any.

“Damn stupid kids,” the voice replied, getting slightly louder as it continued, sounding as though it was approaching.

Through the blackening haze, he finally began to make out the silhouette of a man, decked out in what appeared to be all the necessary hiking supplies he had neglected to bring himself.  As the man got closer, Aaron took a small step back, still uncertain of the stranger’s motivations.  The man’s voice sounded like someone in his mid-thirties, maybe older, but he still couldn’t make out a face to confirm his suspicions.  The darkness covered the man enough that he couldn’t make out very many specific details.  The only thing he could tell for certain was that he appeared to be wearing a heavy white coat and carrying a large dark blue or possibly black backpack.

“Look kid,” the man spoke again, “Do you have any idea where you are?”

“Yes,” Aaron replied, trying desperately to sound confident.  “I’m on the trail I started on this morning and I think my truck is just a couple miles further on.”

“You think?  You’re gonna get yourself killed not knowing where you are at all times out here,” the man scolded him.  “Got it?”

Aaron nodded slowly, not completely sure if the man could see his response.

“Look, if you’re not certain, you’d better find someplace to stay out here for the night then try and find your way back in the daylight.”

“That’s what I was trying to figure out,” Aaron said.  “I was gonna build a fire in that clearing over there.”

“Bad idea,” the man said, matter of factly.  “A fire out in the open like this’ll bring a bear right to ya.  And we’ve got timber rattlers out here, too, that love to curl up with campers beside the fire.  One of those bites ya way out here, and you’ll be dead before you ever get back to your car.

“There’s a small cave off of the left side of this trail here about a hundred yards on up.  I used it a couple years back when I got caught in a snowstorm.  You’ll be safe there.”

Aaron initially wanted to say no thanks to the man, was still more than a little unnerved by his sudden appearance from nowhere.  But he also didn’t want to spend the night out here in the cold.  Plus, the man’s mention of timber rattlers only added to his earlier fear of snakes.  The man, despite Aaron’s misgivings, did seem to know his way around the forest.  And he had said that he’d used the cave of which he spoke before, in conditions that must have been much worse than this.

The man began to walk away without waiting for a reply from Aaron, as if the matter had been settled.  The choice was abrupt and stark; stay here and get eaten or maybe freeze to death, or follow the man to the cave and pass an uncomfortable night hoping for the best.  Aaron finally made his call, deciding on what he considered to be the lesser of the two evils he now faced, and quickly followed the man.

The stranger walked over the rough and unseen terrain as smoothly as if he were crossing a linoleum kitchen floor.  Aaron, on the other hand, lost his balance, stumbled and nearly fell several times, but somehow willed himself to stay upright.  He didn’t want to appear any more incompetent than he already did.  They walked on for a brief few minutes before the man stopped and pointed to an area to the left of the trail.

“There’s the cave,” he said.

Aaron strained his eyes in that direction, barely making out a small patch that remarkably seemed to be darker than the surrounding area.

‘I really don’t wanna go in there,’ he thought instantly, but still went along with the suggestion because he didn’t want to offend the man who seemed so much more knowledgeable about survival that he was.

“I’ll go in first and check it out,” the stranger said, almost seeming to sense Aaron’s apprehension, “to make sure there aren’t any critters already living here.”

The man knelt down and disappeared into the small black hole.  Aaron waited impatiently in the dull, fading light, suppressing a sudden urge to turn and run back down the trail now, while the stranger couldn’t see him.

“It’s all clear,” the man’s voice eventually called out from the void with a slightly perceptible echo in its tone, “Come on down.”

Aaron took a deep breath, and made his way to the opening, testing each step before him slightly.  He put out his hand to feel his way into the cave when it came to rest on a large stone above the entrance.  Pausing for an instant for a closer examination, Aaron realized that the cave was actually just a crevice between a collection of much larger rocks, and not a hole leading into the ground as he had assumed.

He slowly bent down and made his way into the opening, still being extremely cautious of each step.  Soon, he reached what felt like a level floor, and he began to walk deeper into the cave.  Moving further into the darkness, Aaron found himself again questioning the man.  How did he get down here without a light, and why wasn’t there one on now?

“Excuse me, sir?” Aaron called out softly, hearing even his light, hesitant words bounce back at him from the rock walls.  “Are you there?”

Suddenly, a loud crash came from behind him, causing Aaron to let out a screech of shock and fear.  Unlike when he had tripped on the trail earlier, in here, in the chill air and total darkness, he hadn’t been able to muffle his unexpected cry.

‘Oh, screw this,’ he thought, and turned to try and head back out into the wilderness, feeling his way toward the entrance as he could no longer even make out the faintest hint of light before him.  But when he reached the place where he knew the cave’s opening had been, he found the way blocked by one of the large stones he’d felt as he’d entered.  Gripped by a sudden panic, Aaron pressed his shoulders into the stone, digging his feet into the ground and shoving with all the strength he could summon, but to no avail.  The rock would not budge even an inch.

Finally, calming himself slightly, he turned again to face the darkness of the cave.

“I think we’re trapped,” he said, unlike earlier, actually hoping the man was still in the cave with him and hadn’t been the one that moved that stone that now confined him.  Waiting a few seconds for a non-existent reply, Aaron finally yelled out, his fear starting to get the best of him.

“C’mon, say something!  What do we do?”

But still, there came no reply.  Aaron again made his way deeper into the cave, again feeling his way along the stone walls as he went.  His steps were slower and more deliberate, yet he still managed to strike something in the path before him, causing him to tumble forward to the dirt covered ground.  Aaron struggled to get himself upright again, but in the darkness, he had lost his bearings before finally finding the rock wall once again with his flailing, panic-driven arms.  Taking another deep breath or two, Aaron suddenly remembered the lighter in his pocket, quickly fishing it out and struggling to generate the flame, striking three or four times before finally bursting to light.

For an instant, his eyes were whited out by the sudden glare from the firelight in the intense black of the cave, but soon enough, they adjusted and he was able to make out the object he had fallen over.  Looking down at the thing at his feet, Aaron’s mind completely reeled from the awful sight, and he dropped the lighter, rushing the small cave back into total darkness.

Aaron didn’t dwell on it for very long, or make out much in the way of specific details, but he had seen enough in that single instant of clarity.  A decayed skeleton of a man was lying against the wall, and the only specifics he could make out were a battered white coat and the dust-covered dark blue, almost black backpack it appeared to be wearing.

The Trail, copyright 2011, Dan Meadows and Watershed Publications.  All rights reserved.

If you enjoyed what you just read, you can click on the link below to find out more about the book it came from, my new 13-story collection, Devil’s Dozen.

And for more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my original short story collection Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

A few days ago, I wrote an essay on why I believe horror writing is, indeed, an art form, and a massively under-appreciated one, at that.  Over the years, I’ve consumed absurd amounts of horror literature, from ancient texts to more modern classics to some of today’s emerging artists, as a quick glance at my bookshelf reveals.  (And I’m talking actual bookshelf here, actually standing in my dining room, overflowing with more books than could ever fit onto its seven-foot frame.)

As always, some works stand out more than others.  For whatever reason, some tales and their creators tend to resonate with different people in different ways.  Instead of offering up a best-of list or something similar, I thought I’d just go through a half a dozen books among the many, that stuck with me, inspired me a bit, if you will.

The Haunting of Hill House–Shirley Jackson

Best book ever.  Hands down.  Bar none.  This book has stopped me from ever really writing a full-on haunted house story because there is simply no earthly (or unearthly) way that I could improve upon the perfection of Jackson’s masterpiece.  This story has so many levels that it still takes some time after reading it to figure out what exactly had gone on.

Was the house actually haunted?  Was Eleanor the one doing the haunting herself?  I’m still not sure.  I alternate every time I read it; and I’ve read it a lot.  My copy is a crumbling paperback held together by a rubber band at the moment–a testament to a well-used life. 

Sometimes, I’m convinced that the house really is an evil force and poor, sensitive, fragile little Eleanor is the perfect bait for its unholy attentions.  But then, other times, I persuade myself that the house is totally benign, and that Eleanor is the protagonist, taking a mind that was on the brink to begin with and dropping all the way into madness and obsession within the house.  I’m just not sure either way, and that’s part of what makes this book so perfect.  It doesn’t really matter. 

I Am Legend–Richard Matheson

What Shirley Jackson’s aforementioned novel did for haunted houses, Matheson’s I Am Legend has done for vampires, and to a lesser extent, zombies.  That is, after reading this, I just couldn’t conceive of a more unique angle for a vampire/undead tale, so why try?

Let me say, I didn’t care for the Will Smith film version.  I like the old Charlton Heston version, The Omega Man, a little better, but it still didn’t bring the book across in all its glory.  Sometimes, that’s just not possible, and this book, short as it is (not even 200 pages) may be one of those. 

The gist of this story, however echoes through mainstream horror to this day.  Reanimated, undead corpses caused by a mutant bacteria unleashed in a massive epidemic infecting nearly the entire planet.  Sound familiar?  This book, while ostensibly about vampires, actually invented the entire zombie genre that pervades everything these days.

The book’s conclusion is near-perfect to my way of thinking.  You never consider such things, that in a world populated with vampires and zombie vampires, a lone human being would become an object of fear and superstition.  I just love the fact that the Legend referred to in the title is not at all what I expected it meant before I read the book.

Something Wicked This Way Comes–Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is an interesting guy.  It’s hard to pin down exactly what genre he works in, and I believe that’s the way he likes it.  Many times, I find the Bradbury books lumped in with science fiction, but I don’t think that fits completely.  Something Wicked This Way Comes, however, is unambiguous.  It’s horror, plain and simple.

Rolling into the idyllic little burg of Greentown one autumn comes a carnival.  It’s leader, a Mr. Dark, secretly entices patrons to live their fantasies, but for a price.  Those who partake become bound to the carnival, and immortalized as a tattoo on Mr. Dark’s body.

The story is told in Bradbury’s best, creepiest voice, even making the darkness and decay of the carnival beautiful in a haunting sort of way.  It’s a basic battle between good versus evil at its core, but the elements of temptation, desire, and a yearning for one’s lost youth carve out a richly spooky landscape.

The conclusion can seem a bit light and fluffy, especially for a book as genuinely creepy as this one, but it doesn’t bother me.  Mr. Dark is evil and feeds off of darker emotions.  It makes some sense that positive emotions could give him fits.  But that’s only a minor issue.  This book is simply a beauty of atmospheric horror. 

Dracula–Bram Stoker

Of the classic Victorian horror novels, Dracula always was my favorite.  Frankenstein has its place but was a little too much like a philosophy class for my taste.  Jekyll and Hyde was a good look at the darkness that lives in all men, but Stevenson’s writing, even on darker subject matters like Hyde, always seemed much better suited to children’s epic adventures like Treasure Island.  For my money, Dracula is the best of that group.

Bram Stoker, by all reports a somewhat repressed personality himself, did manage to draft a very dense and comprehensive tale that treats the concepts of love and sexuality in a manner very un-Victorian.  The mysterious count leaves his Transylvanian abode to travel to London to find what he believes to be his long lost love.  By now, everyone knows the gist of the tale.  But Stoker writes it in such a way that the theme of temptations of the flesh that runs throughout is almost palpable.  And I, for one, like the ending.

There is no way Dracula is dead.  Certainly, he was stabbed through the heart and dissolved into dust, but I think that was a ruse.  The book itself even set up the use of a wooden stake through the heart earlier, why would a simple bowie knife work at the end on the most powerful of all vampires?  It wouldn’t.  The count wanted them to believe him dead.  That’s my take, and I’m sticking to it.  Dracula lives on!

Night Shift–Stephen King

Stephen King might not be anywhere near the class of writers that make up much of this list, but I would be remiss if he didn’t play some part.  If you liked horror during the time I grew up, you simply couldn’t avoid King’s work.  I read many of his novels–Pet Cemetery likely being my favorite–but it was always his short stories I enjoyed the most.  And his first collection of those stories, Night Shift, has stayed with me through the years.

The amount of material in Night Shift that later became films or other works is startling.  Salem’s Lot, Graveyard Shift, The Mangler, Maximum Overdrive, The Lawnmower Man, Cat’s Eye, Sometimes They Come Back, Childen of the Corn and more I’m sure I’m forgetting, all had their origins in this one little story collection from the late ’70s.

While I’ve often felt King’s novels were over-long and a bit rambling, I always considered him an underrated short story writer.  Maybe it’s because his ideas are distilled more in a short story, I don’t know, but if I read any of King’s work today, it’ll almost always be Night Shift or his later short story collection, Skeleton Crew.

Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre–H.P. Lovecraft

While I’m on the subject of short stories, another of my favorite books is this collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s work.  If you’ve never read Lovecraft, you should.  His world is one where the very fabric of reality hangs by just a thread and there are always bigger, darker, scarier beings waiting just behind the veil to cross over.

Lovecraft writes is such a nicely polished way, yet much of his work sets you at immediate unease.  He frequently describes how angles in a room or structure have an unsettling affect, but his prose is much the same.  Reading Lovecraft just puts you slightly off, uncomfortable, if you will. 

So many times in his tales, events take a wild, seemingly insane turn, yet his characters adapt as if they’re going to the grocery store as they try to stop a 100,000 year old creature from crossing into this realm and wreaking havoc.  Very few writers more clearly allow you to relate to someone’s descent into total madness as Lovecraft does. It makes his work simultaneously exhilarating and disconcerting.  What better advertisement could you need for a horror author?

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 6: Hauntings of the High Seas

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

The 13 Days of Halloween: Hauntings on the High Seas

The sea has always held a mystical quality for so many.  Being so vast and, at times, unforgiving as the Earth’s waters can be has ingrained a deep respect within the hearts and minds of sailors the world over.  An almost endless amount of beliefs and rituals associated with the sea and ocean-going voyages have developed over the centuries to assist men with handling the extreme risk and unknown qualities of the task they chose to undertake. 

Be it any of various gods, or other mystical nautical beings presumed to be in charge, or in the name of the sea herself, as if from a single being, what happens while aboard ship has always been attributed, at least in part, to a fate or a will outside that of normal human powers.  Sometimes, men and women are trapped in the force of that will; other times, entire ships and their crews get caught up.  Whatever the reason, the sea frequently raises more questions than it answers, especially for those who sail on it.  

To most anyone, The Flying Dutchman is the most famous ghost ship of all time.  The legend is a simple one:  The captain of a vessel of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century defied logic and the gods when he steered his vessel into a storm near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.  Predictably, the ship crashed on the rocks, killing all aboard her.  But that wasn’t all.  This captain’s transgressions were so great that death wasn’t his only punishment.  He and his crew were also doomed to sail the waters near the Cape of Good Hope for all time, and any man who laid eyes on the phantom vessel would die soon thereafter.

There have been numerous sightings over the centuries in the waters near South Africa of a ghostly vessel sailing within a storm of its own, appearing and disappearing into thin air.  It is said that those who see the Dutchman will die of drowning soon thereafter.  It was also thought that the vessel had the ability to lure other ships to their demise, smashing them into the same rocks that claimed her all those years ago.  The Flying Dutchman has become almost a generic term for any phantom vessel sighting and has moved beyond a tale told amongst sea-farers to an iconic legend.  When it comes to ghost ships, The Flying Dutchman is the only place to start.

The S.S. Queen Mary is likely the most famous of the modern era ships to carry with it an air of the unknown.  The Queen Mary, nicknamed the Gray Ghost for the color of her hull while ferrying troops across the Atlantic during World War II, has a reputation for being inhabited by several ghostly passengers including, reportedly, Winston Churchill. 

There’s a young sailor who died aboard during a fire-fighting exercise, who is said to keep banging on the door that killed him.  There are ghostly footprints that appear of a small child near the long-since-drained swimming pool, and various other spectres ranging from female passengers appearing out of nowhere then vanishing just as suddenly, or ghostly engineers showing up to work in the engine room.  The ship’s long history has led to many events, some of them unfortunate, happening within her hull, and amongst modern day vessels, she’s said to be one of the most haunted.

The S.S. St. Paul is another large cruise liner that reportedly was done in by ghosts from its past.  The ship, which carried troops all around the world, including Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, was involved in a serious collision with a British liner, the Gladiator in 1908.  The two ships collided, the Gladiator getting the worst of the affair, killing 27 members of her crew. 

A decade later, while in port in New York being refitted for military service, the St. Paul suffered an inexplicable accident, causing the ship to sink and killing four sailors in the process.  Interestingly enough, the ship sank precisely ten years to the very minute that she collided with the Gladiator.  Some have said that it was the ghosts of those doomed sailors that took their revenge on the St. Mary.  After the accident, the ship was salvaged for a short time, but eventually scrapped five years later. 

The Tricolor was a Norwegian merchant vessel that caught fire and had a load of chemicals in her hull explode on January 5, 1931 near Sri Lanka.  The vessel encountered a severe tropical storm during her fateful journey, and it is thought that a lightning strike started the fire.  The destruction of the ship was witnessed by a French liner, the S.S. Porthos, which responded to the distress call. 

Five years to the day after the Tricolor’s demise, a British freighter, the S.S. Khosuru, sailing in the same waters came across a derelict ship that seemed to be devoid of all crew.  The ship passed close enough to the Khosuru for crew members to read the name of the vessel from her hull.  It was the Tricolor.  Before the crew of the Khosuru could overtake the vessel, a torrential rain blocked out all visibility.  Five minutes later, the rain let up, but the derelict was nowhere in sight.  It was only later that the captain of the Khosuru discovered that the position he had seen the strange ship was the exact place where the Tricolor had met her demise five years earlier.

Ghostly presence aboard ship aren’t always harbingers of doom, however.  In 1895, Captain Joshua Slocum started out on a voyage that would make him the world’s first solo circumnavigator of the globe.  He refitted a worn-out old oyster boat for the trip, but near the beginning of the three-year voyage, he encountered a bit of trouble.  Heading toward Gibraltar, Slocum ran into a gale so severe that it stripped the fittings from the deck of his vessel.  In addition, he was suffering from food poisoning at the time. 

During the howling storm, Slocum told of a phantom sailor claiming to be a member of Columbus’ crew who would steer him to safety.  Slocum claims to have passed out, and that the ghostly helmsman led the trip on the proper course through the storm some 90 miles while he slept.  In a book published after the completion of his historic voyage, Slocum gives credit to this apparition, claiming that he surely would have died if not for the otherworldly helping hand.

But if it’s unexplained ship disappearances you’re looking for, there is no better place to seek them out than the infamous Bermuda Triangle.  There are so many accounts of vessels of all kinds simply vanishing in the small region in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida that it’s difficult to keep up with them all.  This region isn’t known simply for vessels disappearing inexplicably, however.  Sometimes, they come back. 

There are numerous incidents of vessels having been reported missing that have later turned up, abandoned and drifting freely about the ocean.  In one of the most disturbing aspects of this region, never in the entire history of the Coast Guard seeking vessels reported missing in this area, has a body turned up, even in the numerous cases where the boat was actually found still afloat.  More still, never once has a signal from an emergency beacon, many of which are designed to signal automatically when separated from a vessel, ever been picked up from a missing vessel within the triangle. 

On average, there are about 20 yachts each year that sail into the Triangle never to be seen or heard from again.  The Bermuda Triangle is one of the most inexplicable, and potentially hazardous areas for boat travel on the globe.  And, as yet, we still don’t know why.

For more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.  And if that’s not enough for you, try my earlier collection, Bad Timing.

Click below for more fright-filled stuff.  And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…

The 13 Days of Halloween

Day 1: Scary Movies to Spend a Cold, Dark Night With

Day 2: The Ghosts of St. Mary’s County

Day 3: Vincent Price–The Last of the Great Horror Icons

Day 3: A Few of My Favorite Vincent Price Films

Day 4: Some Fiction For The Season–One Step Ahead

Day 5: Horror Literature–A Truly Unappreciated Art Form

Day 7: A Few of My Favorite Horror Books

Day 8: More Fiction For the Season–The Trail

Day 9: Edgar Allan Poe–The Greatest American Writer

Day 10: Horror Anthologies on Film and Television

Day 11: Halloween Rituals and How They Originated

Day 12: Alfred Hitchcock Presents Horror

Day 13: Psycho Killers

Day 13: My Favorite Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Happy Halloween: Even More Fiction for the Season–This Old House

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