Halloween Haunts: Celebrate the Bad Times by John F.D. Taff
Halloween. It’s trite that this holiday would be the favorite of a horror writer, but there it is. Halloween is my favorite holiday, better than that blissed-out full feeling at Thanksgiving. Better than a pile of presents at Christmas or rockets red glare on an Independence Day evening.
Why? Well, it’s unlike any other holiday. Whatever its original intent, it isn’t celebrated today to honor anyone or anything’s birthday. It’s doesn’t honor a deity, usher in a new year or even give thanks for anything. In fact, what it celebrates is something that people spend their entire lives studiously ignoring; something that they pretend isn’t out there lurking, waiting for all of us, as Stephen King says, in the clearing at the end of the path.
And that, my friends, is death. Halloween unabashedly, unapologetically, wholeheartedly celebrates death; that grand, terrifying, exhilarating rite of passage we all go through sooner or later (later, it is to be hoped). At its essence, Halloween says Shakespeare was wrong. Death isn’t, as Hamlet says, “the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” Halloween sidles up to you like a drunken uncle and whispers in your ear that travelers not only return…they do it all the time.
I am almost 49 years old as I write this, and it would be exceedingly easy to take this opportunity to look back at Halloweens past and lament the fact that today the holiday is a limp, airless balloon of its former self. I could list all the ways that Halloween has become exceedingly child-proofed, disturbingly safe, exceptionally twee. But who cares? Change, as they say, is inevitable and mostly to be desired. In some ways, as Halloween has become sanitized, it’s also become a tad more adult, a little gorier and harder-edged, which to me and a great many other like-minded people is a good thing.
No, I’d rather concentrate on Halloween’s unique position within the pantheon of holidays. It exists to remind us we’re all gonna die. What other holiday asks us to celebrate bad news…the fact that the good times will come to a screeching, more or less permanent halt? What other holiday reminds us that we’ll all eventually slide away into sublime mystery and messy decay? What a lovely and perverse thing to be asked to throw a party for!
Even just taking this into account, Halloween is like no other holiday. We don’t celebrate the death of the United States or the death of the year, or even, at the risk of seeming sacrilegious, the death of Jesus. (No, Easter doesn’t do that…it celebrates his resurrection. And we’re all horror people here, so don’t go there. Just. Don’t.) And while, yes, I guess Memorial Day does, in some way, celebrate death, it most assuredly doesn’t ask you to take into account the second attribute of Halloween…the whole travelers returning motif.
Halloween not only says we’re all gonna die, it also says some of us are coming back. It might be as pissed-off ghosts or sparkling vampires (Not this, please, at least for me. I hope that, in death at least, there is some dignity), feral were-creatures, bolted-together monstrosities, wailing banshees, flesh-starved ghouls, hideous apparitions, brain-starved zombies, vengeful wraiths, or just melancholy spirits wallowing in emo-like depression over this or that misfortune in life.
Halloween doesn’t just celebrate the unknown or undiscover’d, it asks us to revel in the unknowable, the undiscoverable. It asks us to look at the darkest corners of our existence—not just our death, but our monsters, our shadows, our deepest fears—and smile back at them.
Halloween isn’t just for our inner child, as much as those of my generation might want to make it into that. Halloween is for our inner corpse. That time somewhere out there in the future when we are all cold, stinking dead; when our spirit/soul/ghost flits off to who knows where—Heaven, Valhalla, the Elysian Fields, New Jersey, wherever—perhaps to return in some spectral, blood-lusting or fantastically hairy form to haunt and/or ravage those we left behind.
So, this Halloween take back the holiday and celebrate it on its own terms. Rejoice in your mortality, your death, embrace it, ask it to dance, dress it up and buy it a drink, get it drunk. Then force feed it Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers and Red Vines until it’s clutching its stomach and moaning quietly to itself in bed at 3 a.m.
That’s how you celebrate Halloween.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: John F.D. Taff is giving away one signed copy of his book Little Deaths. To enter post a comment in the section below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and put HH CONTEST ENTRY in the header. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by e-mail.
JOHN F.D. TAFF is a horror writer with more than 20 years of experience. His 70+ published short stories have appeared in magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Deathrealm, Aberrations, Night Chills, Morpheus Tales, Big Pulp and One Buck Horror, as well as anthologies such as Hot Blood: Seeds of Fear, Hot Blood: Fear the Fever, Shock Rock II, Horror for Good, Best New Werewolf Tales, Best New Vampire Tales, and Evil Jester Digest Vol. 1. Four of his short stories were selected as honorable mentions in Datlow & Windling’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror anthologies. Upcoming work will appear in Horror Library V, Black Ink Horror and The Edge of Sundown.
Little Deaths, published by Books of the Dead Press (Toronto) in May of this year, collects 19 of his short stories, some previously published, some new. Little Deaths has made it to the Horror Writer Association’s 2012 Bram Stoker Award Recommended Reading List, and has been met with great reviews.
Here’s what some reviewers have said of the book:
“Particularly well written. Recommended.” Michael R. Collings
“Distinctly charming, pulpy and entertaining.” John Milton, AndyErupts.com
“Compelling. Not a weak story in this very fine collection. Highly Recommended.” Gene O’Neill
“Dazzling.” Gabino Iglesias, HorrorTalk.com
Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/165337Published 2012 by Books of the Dead Press, Toronto
Here’s an excerpt from “Bolts,” the lead story in John F.D. Taff’s short story collection, Little Deaths:
Rachel and I seemed to move past some barrier in our relationship. I sold more things than normal… especially after the Cylon arrived.
One night a few weeks later, we went to bed, turned off the lights and snuggled in the warm sheets. The sounds of the city through the open window were comforting—police sirens, the blat of car horns, the squeal of tires. All far enough away to sound strangely soothing, like crickets in the country. Sleep came quickly.
The next morning was Saturday, and I got up, left Rachel to sleep a little. I snuck into the kitchen and rooted through the cupboards and found the stuff to make banana pancakes.
I had a few stacked on a plate before I looked at the clock again. Nearly 10 a.m., and it seemed strange that she wasn’t awake yet. Turning off the gas, I placed the last pancake onto a plate, slid the pan into the sink.
The bedroom was quiet, still. A picture-perfect beam of golden sunlight shafted through the slats in the blinds, fell all dusty-sparkly onto the comforter.
I sat on the edge of the bed, and moved my hand through the spray of dark hair that fell across her pillow.
“Rabbit? Breakfast is ready.”
I smoothed away her hair. It wanted to drape her cheek. I kissed her there, with my hand holding her hair to the side.
“Rabbit, come on.” I moved the covers aside, rolled her over.
She flopped bonelessly onto her back, one arm flailing out and striking the headboard hard enough to have hurt.
Her eyes were closed. Her mouth was closed, too, and I couldn’t hear her breathing.
I was holding my own breath now, wanting to say her name but unable to articulate one word, one sound. My hand, shaking badly, went to her forehead, her cheeks, her throat. Each time I called her name in my head, Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit!
It came from my mouth, strangled and dry, as near a wail as anything I had ever uttered.
She didn’t stir.
My shaking hand went to her chest, palm flat against her sternum.
Nothing stirred beneath it. Her skin was as cold and plastic as a doll’s.
I swallowed something dry and raspy that lodged in my throat, blocked my airway.
She was dead.
I scooted across the bed, fell to the floor with a thump.
I sat there for a few moments, sat and didn’t move, sat and didn’t think. My brain ran, just ran, like a runner who didn’t know when he’d crossed the finish line, didn’t know where to stop, how to stop.
I swallowed the bolus that seemed to clog my throat, and my heart lurched into motion again with a tremor.
Pulling myself up, I leaned over the bed.
She was mostly uncovered, my Rabbit. She still wore her t-shirt from the night before. Her limbs were thrown across the bed, her hair sprayed across both our pillows.
Her skin was blue—light, unnatural blue. The warm morning sunlight falling through the window had given it the illusion of life, but there was none.
My Rabbit, my sweet Rabbit.
My brain thoroughly disengaged, I shuffled into the kitchen and drank a cup of coffee, picked at the pancakes.
I waited for my brain to tire itself out, come back from wherever it was, and tell me what to do.
I could not make the call, could not imagine making that call, the call that would bring men who would come and take her away on a metal gurney.
As I sat there, her body cooling in our warm, early morning bed, I looked around the place, looked and saw all of the stuff, my stuff, staring back at me.
Without thinking, I launched myself from the chair, sent it skittering back across the tile floor, into the kitchen. I grabbed the nearest glass case, five feet tall and filled with memorabilia, and toppled it over, screaming in anger.
The entire case shattered, spraying the floor with shards of broken glass, figures, broken bits of irreplaceable items.
Breathing heavily, I went into my office, kicking, arms thrashing, sending things into the air, across my desk, clattering to the floor. I shrieked, wordless and raw, and I stomped and threw and tore papers until I was exhausted.
Finally, I slid on some papers; fell to the floor amidst the carnage.
I looked around the room, panting like an animal, stunned at what I’d done.
Then my eyes caught them there on the floor, atop a flutter of papers, sealed in a plastic bag.
I realized two things instantly.
I hadn’t yet cried.
I had completely lost my mind.
* * *
Spirit gum… I can remember the smell of it filling the room as I uncapped the small, brown vial of the stuff.
Spirit gum… strange name, considering my intentions.
I stood in the doorway to the bedroom for a long time, the vial in one hand, the plastic bag with the bolts in the other, stood there as the sun climbed up the blinds, watching her, my Rabbit.
She seemed so small in our bed, so tiny, so forlorn with her arms thrown open and hair tousled, her eyes closed, her face drawn into a small moue, like she was frustrated or annoyed with me.
My brain, understand, was still gone, still moving into the distance.
Kneeling at the side of the bed, I carefully brushed aside her dark hair, exposed her neck.
I unsealed the plastic bag, knocked one of the bolts into my hand. The two were slightly different. One had a blunt cap, like the head of nail; the other was just a flat rod. Each had a little L-shaped wire that angled out like a tiny antenna.
There was a thin circle of rubber around the base where it attached to the neck, which was then was covered with makeup.
I remembered from pictures of Karloff as Frankenstein that the capped bolt was on the right.
With trembling hands, I applied a smear of spirit gum to the rubber seal.
Taking a deep breath, I placed the bolt on Rachel’s neck, guessing about where it should be.
The spirit gum stuck immediately, but I held it in place until I was sure.
When I finished, I looked at her. The bolts seemed to be in the right place, seemed to make a straight line through her neck.
I nodded, pleased with the work I had done, then collapsed in the chair at the foot of the bed and waited… waited.
* * *
After an hour or so, I stood and tried to rouse her.
Then, it struck me.
They weren’t bolts at all.
They were electrodes.
* * *