Saturday, October 9, 2021

Book Review: 13 Horrors of Halloween

[Note: I am traveling today and did not want to leave a possible blog post to the vicissitudes of a hotel wifi system. So I'm posting this on Thursday. I don't think I've posted this review, from October 2008, here on DoSomeDamage. My day job this week was pretty stressful and it actually reflected on a poor writing output. But I will be back next for a very special entry.

So, in light of the season, I'm sharing one of the anthologies I own and take out of the box every October. Enjoy.]

Halloween is perfect for anthologies. Even though you may have a month-long build up to the event, trick-or-treating really only lasts an hour or two. The short burst of a short story is enough of a treat to get in the spirit of the orange-and-black holiday without upsetting your stomach too much. Over the years, I have searched out and found some Halloween-themed anthologies. Halloween Horrors, edited by Alan Ryan, focuses, as you can expect, on the supernatural and terrifying aspects of All Hallow’s Eve. Murder for Halloween is a nice collection of suspense stories edited by Michele Slung and Roland Hartman that runs the gamut from Edgar Allan Poe to Ed McBain. 

The last Halloween anthology I own, and the one I’m focusing this review on, is 13 Horrors of Halloween. Why, you may ask, does this collection get the prize? Simple. Isaac Asimov is one of the editors. Can’t go wrong there. Besides, Asimov’s collection begins with, what else, an introduction detailing the history of Halloween as we now celebrate it. For a man as equally celebrated for his non-fiction output as well as his fiction, this was a nice addition to the usual diatribes about Halloween in other anthologies, including the aforementioned titles. I love history and how things and events have evolved over the centuries. Asimov runs the gamut, from biblical traditions to Persian mythology. It’s all quite fascinating. Asimov ends with this paragraph:

Halloween reflects itself in our literature in three ways: in mystery stories in which the atmosphere of Halloween heightens the natural suspense already present; or fantasy stories that are rooted in the witches, goblins, and devils that are inseparable from the celebration; or horror stories that take advantage of the effluvium of evil that clings to the day.

I love words and their meanings and I particularly enjoyed the word “effluvium” and how it associates with Halloween. A definition is “A usually invisible emanation or exhalation, as of vapor or gas.” I don’t know about y’all but Halloween, the day as well as the night itself always feels different somehow. Rarely here in Houston do we experience the cool winds (although we are today) but there is a certain spirit that permeates October 31. Even the date itself looks and feels different. The stories in this collection exude that same, certain, unique spirit no matter the genre of the story. 

Leave it to Asimov to lead off the anthology with a detective story. Asimov, the SF master, dipped his considerable genius into detective fiction with a couple of his novels including The Caves of Steel. In this story, simple titled “Halloween,” Detective Haley has to find some missing plutonium. The thief is dead, collapsed in a stairwell of a large hotel, and his last word is the story’s title, “Halloween.” It’s the early hours of 1 November and the thief could have hidden the small box of plutonium in any of the hotel’s 800+ rooms. The detective has a theory on where to find the plutonium and you’ll just have to read the story to find out if he’s right. 

Ray Bradbury makes an appearance. Bradbury writes fiction that can be as nostalgic as old, sepia-tinted photographs even if you never lives in the world’s Bradbury describes. One of his favorite holidays is Halloween. But, unlike The Halloween Tree, “The October Game” is a fun little ditty with this first line: “He put the gun back in to the bureau drawer and shut the drawer.” It’s always fun when you start a story with a gun. It’s just waiting to be fired. 

A few other mystery writers show up; Anthony Boucher, Ellery Queen, and a great story by the late Edward D. Hoch. I haven’t read many of his stories but this one, “Day of the Vampire,” is a good one for this election season. Sheriff Frank Creasley is running for reelection but a body is found and all the blood has been drained from it. After Creasley carelessly get the ME to hide the evidence, the sheriff’s opponent makes political hay from the cover-up. Unless you are a jaded reader, you won’t see the ending coming. 

Other folks you’ve probably heard of take a turn at a Halloween tale: Edith Wharton, Robert Grant, Talmage Powell. Al Sarrantonio’s “Pumpkinhead” is a devilishly good example of how an author can take something that can evoke fond memories in all of us—kids Halloween party, at a school and a home—and turn it upside down. The story takes place in two parts, one at school and one later that Halloween night. Here’s the opening paragraphs of the story:

Ghouls loped up and down aisles between desks, shouting “Boo!” at one another. Crepe paper, crinkly and the colors of Halloween, crisscrossed over blackboards covered with mad and frightful doodlings in red and green chalk; snakes, rats, witches on broomsticks. Windowpanes were filled with cutout black cats and ghosts with no eyes and giant O’s for mouths.
Here’s how Sarrantonio describes the night:
A black and orange night. Here came a black cat walking on two legs; there two percale sheet ghosts trailing paper bags with handles; here again a miniature man from outer space. The wind was up: leaves whipped along the serpentine sidewalk like racing cards. There was an apple-crisp smell in the air, an icicle-down-your-spine, here-comes-winter chill. Pumpkins everywhere, and a half harvest moon playing coyly with wisps of high shadowy cloud. A thousand dull yellow night-lights winked through the breezy trees on a thousand festooned porches. A constant ringing of doorbells, the wash of goblin traffic; they traveled in twos, threes, or fours, these monsters, held together by Halloween gravity. Groups passed other groups, just coming up, or coming down, stairs, made faces, and said, “Boo!” There were a million “Boo!” greetings this night.

I don’t know about you, but after reading lines like these, I want to travel back in time, don my Han Solo costume, and go trick-or-treating. But, since that isn’t an option, I’ll have to improvise. I think I might put in my vampire teeth and paint on the fake blood. I might sit by the front window, light a candle, and read Isaac Asimov’s 13 Horrors of Halloween by its light. 

Oops! Gotta go. There’s the front door bell. I wonder what the kids would do if I said “Trick”? Let’s find out.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Loose Thoughts on Mike Flanagan's Midnight Mass

 By Jay Stringer


(Copyright me, don't be a dick.)

I've watched Midnight Mass twice. Once in one long marathon when it came out, and then again spaced out over a few days after I found I wasn't quite done thinking about it. I don't know that I can gather my thoughts together into a coherent essay, so let's call call this a random list. 

It's a LOT. 

There are certain things the show makes obvious. And I appreciated that. Marketing departments might find it helpful to withhold the V word, and to bury the 'reveal' until after the opening weekend, but the show doesn't really care how quickly you figure out the broad strokes. It seemed clear to me as soon as we got to the island that we were playing around a little with Salem's Lot. Giving us the best adaptation of the classic vampire novel while never being an adaptation. Sure, throwing in a few Needful Things, and some common touchstones of the genre, but I felt the Lot from the start. 

Part of this is no doubt because Mike Flanagan is so effective at capturing the feel of early Stephen King. There's just something in the air, in the soil, in the shadows, of Flanagan's work that evokes the smaller moments of King's work. At this point it's not fair to keep reviewing him only in those terms. Flanagan, as with any of us, has his influences, but he's incorporated them into his own style. 

I don't always engage with his work. I like Hush quite a lot, loved Hill House, but never really connected with Bly Manor and have yet to see Doctor Sleep. However, I always find things to like in the tone and the feel of his work. He creates lived-in spaces, and gives room for the actors to do the same. It's in their eyes, faces, and silences. The years bear down on them. The performances are stellar across the board, but I want to draw a special mention for Rahul Kohli for his use of silence and his instincts to trust his presence. Quiet acting is the most important ingredient in any ensemble piece, providing the glue that holds everything together. 

As I said before, the show doesn't try too hard to hide things that don't need to be hidden. The more familiar you are with genre -and the sooner you know which specific horror genre the show is dealing in- you can see familiar beats, a story following the rules. But the real trick of genre is that, if you trust the viewer or reader to pick up on these things and don't try to hide them, you have license to treat these elements as your right hand, waving at the viewer, keeping their attention from all the things you're holding in your left. Midnight Mass does this perfectly. Some reveals are obvious, if you want to see them, but they only work to sneak other surprises in past you. 

Addiction as shorthand for...

Something that often annoys me in crime and horror fiction is the use of addiction as shorthand for corruption or failure. All too often we see Checkov's monkey on a character's back, and start the clock ticking for the moment they fall, fail, compromise, or give in. In Midnight Mass we are presented with two alcoholics (well, I would say three, but that's a conversation for another time) in the show. And they both die. I guess there's room there for people to be angry that neither of them are allowed to make it out alive, but for me, on a deep level, I appreciated that they both died sober. None of us get out of life alive, but if we win our daily battles we can face death sober. Flanagan has been quite open about his own journey to sobriety, and I'm sure this part of there story was a conscious choice. 

Let us not prey...

With a show that deals so much in religious themes, there will be plenty of better writers than me discussing them. For me, I revelled in the human questions at play. Whether there is a god or isn't is above my pay grade. And everyone's relationship to god is a personal matter. But down here on the ground we have questions to face over our relationships with each other. What god can forgive is out of our control, but what we can forgive is key to our quality of life and mental health. You come out of the show wanting to forgive most of the people for most things, and probably convinced that at least one person deserves to burn a lot longer than they do. There are many small beautiful moments of forgiveness that come once the horrors have been done. This is another level on which I'm sure Flanagan is discussing addiction and recovery. We shouldn't confuse redemption with forgiveness. That can get overlooked sometimes in the social media dissections of films and tv, about which characters do or don't get 'redeemed.' Forgiveness is a whole other deal. Nobody can -or should- ever force you to give it, but if you can, it's a kindness to both parties. And sometimes you also just need to forgive yourself, to be kind to yourself. Because kindness is so much of what it takes to make it through this whole 'life' thing. 

Deus Ex Maybe?

Something that has always annoyed me about the film Signs is the moment M. Night Shyamalan stops trusting the audience. Throughout the movie we have been left to put the pieces -the signs- together. But during the final confrontation between the family and one lone, trapped, alien, we are given flashbacks to all of the pieces along the way. Pieces we had already put together ourselves. And, with that, we are also forced into seeing a clear position taken by the film - there is very much a god in the story machine. 

Flanagan holds off from making this mistake. The conclusion is left to the viewer. If you look for a god in your material, then there are plenty of signs. We could see the way fate has moved all the pieces into place, from a car accident, an unexpected pregnancy, an oil spill, a stray bullet, cancer, and a child's conversation with her mother about clipping wings. We could see all of those moving parts lining up together and conclude that god made it happen. Or we can watch it without looking for the divine, and simply enjoy the drama. The conclusions are ours to draw. 

Summarizing the sermons. 

One of the few criticisms I've seen online is that Pruitt's 'turn' back comes too quickly. One minute he's shouting from the pulpit about joining god's army, the next he's recognising the wolves in the darkness. But for me -and purely for me- this misses the point of the sermons. Each one is a conversation Pruitt is having with himself. The gods army sermon is an argument he's having with himself. One of the deep truths about addiction is self-deception. And on many levels, it's a deception the addict is always conscious of. They know they are lying too themself, at the same time as they are telling themself they believe the lies. All that happens here is that Pruitt reaches his moment of clarity, when he can no longer lie to himself. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

So You Made Some Bad Art Friends

If you haven't yet, read this insanity.

Holy shit, right? Just wow.

I realize the epic that is Bad Art Friend does provide an opportunity to talk about a little discussed topic within writing: the perils of networking (or, how to gauge/temper your social relationships in a healthy way before you drive yourself fucking insane).

The very act of writing is a mostly solitary exercise, so when some writers need to approach others within their community, be it for feedback, opportunity, or kinship, well, there can be a lot of weird pitfalls. Most commonly, these pitfalls are easy to navigate. Some of us are shy, some of us are not. 

It happens. 

But sometimes, oh, sometimes all those doubts, fears, and monsters in our heads can overwhelm us and imposter syndrome creeps right into your socializing, leaving you wondering if the people you're connecting with see you as a peer or if they even see you as a fellow artist at all.

9 times out of 10, those fears are unfounded. But that single time like the one above, where your fears are validated (not discounting an IMMENSE lack of self awareness, but that's a much deeper discussion that isn't so writing-focused), what the hell do you do?

Here are a few tips to life after bad art friends.

1) What hill do you plan to die on?

OK - you just found out there are writers talking a little smack about you. Hell, you may have found out that you are - gasp - DISLIKED among a certain set of writers. 

Bluntly, take stock of your shit. Take a second to do a little reflection and see if your actions may be to blame. Now, this isn't the time to dump the weight of the world on your shoulders, but there's always a chance there's a few crossed wires that you can sort out with good communication and a proper cleaning of your own house.

If not...

Move the fuck on then. As in high school, there are many cliques within writing communities. More often than not, it's harmless, just like-minded people bonding with other like-minded people. Sometimes, it is a group of Mean Girl-wannabes looking out for themselves and thirsting for non-stop validation from fellow boot lickers. Thems the breaks. Ask yourself, is it really worth pushing back? To paraphrase something I heard somewhere, you can't wake someone up when they're faking sleep. Meaning, if someone is willfully doing something, there's not much of a chance you're going to win them over. Starve their fire by choosing not to be the oxygen in the room.

2) Don't drive yourself insane

It's really easy to get wrapped in your own head without hurt feelings. Add the latter to the mix and we all lose ourselves a little. 

I've always been of the belief that I should never assume everyone likes me, but I should also never believe everyone hates me. Temper your relationships within the community. Understand boundaries and understand the people around you. You don't need anyone's friendship to succeed. if someone is toxic, but they hold some sway, who cares? Don't fool yourself into believing anyone's favor is going to change your writing career. Your work will do that, not being friendly to any assholes with perceived power (because I promise you, they ain't as powerful as you think), won't ruin anything for you.

Besides, you have writing to do. You see the room's packed with nonsense? Guess what? You can leave and go write! Maybe even about them (but just avoid like, outright lifting shit from them. Apparently, that ends BADLY).

3) Redefine your own boundaries/goals

Take stock of your situation. What will place you in a safe space? Pulling away entirely? Avoiding certain events? We all handle our traumas differently. Try to find the best way you can tend to your ego wounds without harming your artistic endeavors.

Remember: the social aspect of writing is NOT the same as the act of writing. The only people that can hurt our writing is ourselves. Bullies, hangers-on, and other dummies can't be allowed to hurt your passion of the act itself. Now, some people may argue that smack talking can indeed hurt their career, that folks may talk crap about you to industry professionals.

Well, I mean, if you did something awful, sure, you're done. Let's call that a caveat here. In the event that you're simply disliked by a group of people who like to stir shit, then don't worry. First, if your work is good and you're a professional, nobody is going to avoid working with you because you talk about another hobby too much or you were awkward one time during a reading. And if that industry pro WERE to do that? I mean, shit, is that someone worth working with in the first place?

4) Don't hate yourself, love yourself

Not everyone in life will like us. Even if we're the most put together, compassionate, vibrant being of pure light. There will always be someone out there who wants to dim that shit.

Therefore, if there's something to fix on your end, by all means do, but don't do it for others. I started writing to heal my own traumas, not to be best friends with everyone I meet. I continue on that path, because writing has made me a better person and has helped alleviate some of my scars. I've made friends too, but that's icing on the cake.

Don't sweat the icing. Make the cake.

5) Do good to do good

An obvious issue with Bad Art Friend's kidney story is the sense of neediness based off a person's good deeds. I'm of the belief we do good things to simply put good into the world. We don't need a million pats on the back for being a decent person and we should never expect friendship or opportunities based on the perception of our actions.

I've found paying it forward is therapeutic and a great means to sort out my emotions when I feel down. In a rut because of the bad art friends? Find a way to be a good art friend to others.

Anyway, I'm hoping this is a helpful (if cheeky) rundown on how to handle the stress of high school level drama in an adult world. Be the best art friend you can be - even if it's only to yourself.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

When the System Bares Its Teeth: The Roots of My Novel, Neighborhood of Dead Ends

Scott's note: Stanton McCaffery joins us today.  Stanton is also known as Roger Nokes (his real name, McCaffrey being the pen name), and when not working at his full-time job or living his daily life with his family, he helps edit the noir magazine, Rock and a Hard Place. He is, as a matter of fact, a founder of the magazine, a publication focusing on stories of struggle and the powerless, the marginalized people on the edges of society. In line with these preoccupations is his new novel, his second overall, Neighborhood of Dead Ends.  

But that's it for me; I'll let Stanton take it from here.


When the System Bares Its Teeth: The Roots of My Novel, Neighborhood of Dead Ends

by Stanton McCaffery

What happens when you try to change things?

What happens when you fight back -- not against a person, but against an idea, an institution, or a system?

Either we applaud activists once their struggles are won and their cause vindicated, or we write them off as fringe outliers, crackpots and lunatics, or we protect the status quo of the system and fight to get the activists to shut up. Rarely, other than in retrospect, do we recognize the personal toll that fighting for change can take on a person’s life.

I first drafted my new novel, Neighborhood of Dead Ends, roughly six years ago while in a dark state of mind on multiple fronts. Many of the themes were borne from my own experiences.

I began my life as an activist while in high school, spending Friday nights and weekends preparing and serving meals with Food Not Bombs. This long standing leftist institution highlights the links between capitalism and hunger by distributing food that would have otherwise gone to waste.

I soon turned to animal rights, focusing in particular on a notorious vivisection laboratory in Central New Jersey, Huntingdon Life Sciences. The campaign to close that laboratory had militant elements, many of which make me cringe after 20 years. However, what scared me most were the consequences sought, and in many cases, won by then federal prosecutor Chris Christie against the leading activists, one of whom was sentenced to ten years in prison under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. (To learn more, watch the documentary Animal People available on Netflix).

While the federal government was tightening its grip on animal rights activists, some of whom were my close personal friends, my own life was changing significantly. At the age of 19, I became a father. Right before my son was born, my emails had been subpoenaed by the FBI. Though nothing came of federal agents pouring through my personal communications – despite a friend giving my name to the FBI in a desperate attempt to have his own charges dropped – I was terrified enough to cool it with any sort of activism for about 15 years.

And 15 years later brings you to the 2016 election. The Sunday after the Trump win, we had a conversation at my church about reconciliation in the context of the recent election. Many of the congregants of my liberal church were visibly upset. One man, attempting to soothe everyone, said, in what I thought was a condescending tone, “If you don’t like the way things are, then you can get involved and change them.”

I sat with my arms crossed and thought, “Like it’s that easy.”

My activist past and cynicism formed my state of mind while drafting the novel. Neighborhood of Dead Ends isn’t about animal rights activism or presidential politics. It’s about a woman fighting her township to keep her home.

This was familiar territory for my family. My wife and I struggled for a long time to stay above water financially, as plenty of young parents do. With the extraordinary help of my parents, we were able to buy a small home in a sleepy neighborhood on a dead-end street. As the years went by and the 2008 financial crisis took its toll on our neighborhood, our house was soon surrounded by vacant homes. What was once sleepy started to become a little creepy. Directly next door was a boarded-up house spray-painted on the inside with white supremacist slogans and swastikas.

I recall one of my snootier acquaintances saying, after a murder occurred up the road, “Why don’t you just move?”

And I thought, “Like it’s that easy.”

Not only did we not move, but we worked hard to keep the house. I struggled to pay the bills driving ambulances and school buses and working for low-paying non-profits. Again, if not for my parents, we would have lost the house.

I often think about people that don’t get help like I did. We know what happens to them. Things get worse. It takes 20 years without a single thing going wrong for someone in the U.S. to get out of poverty. How many people do you know who have gone 20 years without a problem or financial worry?

On top of my financial struggles and my history with activism, Neighborhood Dead Ends was also shaped by my thoughts about parenting. My son was old enough when I started drafting the book that I could go back over his life and consider if I had done the right thing at various points. What qualifies someone as a good parent? What qualifies someone as a bad parent?

Parenting is not an exact science, and everyone makes mistakes. Some of those mistakes have horrible consequences, even if they don’t necessarily come from horrible intentions. If you make a mistake that costs the life of your child, does that make you a bad parent?

I don’t think it does, and I think intention matters. I think people try and people are flawed, and people fuck up, sometimes spectacularly, sometimes tragically, and sometimes they spend the rest of their lives with guilt and remorse eating away at all the good parts.

Neighborhood of Dead Ends is the result of me trying to make sense of all of this in my own head. It’s about people who love their children and do the best they can in a world that doesn’t care, about them or their kids. It’s about fighting a system that wants to crush them. It's about the status quo that wants us to go to work, and shut up, and never strive for better. Because if you forget your place, if you push back, you have to be ready to pay the price.


You can pick up Neighborhood of Dead Ends right here.

And if you're interested in reading the fiction being published in Rock and a Hard Place magazine, or in writing for the magazine, you should check out the Rock and a Hard Place website:

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?


By Claire Booth

I saw Hamilton this week. I’d seen the filmed version of the Broadway show on Disney+ months ago, and listened to the cast recording countless times. But there is, of course, something about seeing it live. For one thing, the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda hits you like a visceral thunderbolt right from the beginning. There’s no distance. Just full sensory perfection in every note and lyric.

And then there’s the storytelling. As the show crescendoed toward the end, I realized one of the reasons it works so well—the same reason that makes good crime fiction.

Every character believes he’s doing the right thing. That his position is the wisest, his goals the most righteous, his outcomes the most necessary for the common good. A hero always has these things. It’s trickier to pull that off with a villain. If, as a storyteller, you succeed (as Miranda did, with no small debt to author Ron Chernow), then you elevate your story from good to great.

Even if you don’t identify with Aaron Burr, you understand him. You might not be the type of person who plays your cards close to the chest, but I’ll bet you know people who do. People who talk less, smile more. It’s relatable conflict that shapes a story, whether it’s a crime fiction novel or the founding of a nation.