Just Leave

I need and plan to work more on this story, but it'll do for now. Enjoy!

Just Leave

Warren and his sister were thick in the midst of sorting out his parents’ estate. Their mother had died of congestive heart failure a little over two years prior, and their father, though seemingly healthy overall, had deteriorated in the interim and recently succumbed to lung cancer, which he hadn’t told anyone about until the last days. Both had smoked for more than 70 years, and the utter permeation of the house’s every inch by tar and nicotine was one of the main reasons Warren hated visiting. That smoke smell would be hell to get out, Warren worried, especially if they were going to sell the house.

He had driven the 3 hours or so up to his parents’ house (former house, he kept thinking) that afternoon to sort through some of his father’s belongings. Will it look different to me now?, Warren had wondered during the drive. He had only been there once since his father died and realized that he’d never known a time when the house had no real owners, no occupants.

But the house looked the same, of course. An apparent one-story from the front, an actual two-story from the rear owing to its position on a hillside, the Dimion homestead was perfectly traditional, discolored tan brick and an aging hip roof surrounded by an unremarkable but tidy yard. Trees Warren had played in or around as a kid were long gone, either from age or ice storms. None of the houses in their neighborhood looked even remotely similar to one another, which always made Warren feel an involuntary and illogical pride.

He found the spare key where it had been stashed for years – under a landscaping stone covered with bark mulch to the front porch’s left – and went in the house, catching the stinging odor of cigarette smoke before he even opened the door. Although his sister had texted him earlier in the day to say she’d already removed most of the furniture, he was unprepared for the empty room that greeted his entrance: where once had stood a dining table, chairs, TV, and roll-top desk, now there was only discolored and indented carpet. The sitting room just to the left was empty as well, and its bare faux-wood floor hollowly reverberated the closing front door. Only then did it occur to Warren that all the beds were probably gone too, meaning he’d have nowhere comfortable to sleep.

Wandering through the house, the creaky kitchen floor (you entered on the second floor, at the foundational hill’s apex) sounded louder than he remembered, likely because of the rooms’ emptiness, and he grinned at the minutiae left behind: two stained oven mitts hanging next to the stove, a comically obsolete list of phone numbers taped to the wall, three stair-stepped containers he really hoped didn’t still contain sugar-free cookies, the incongruously new washer and dryer.

Down the carpeted and equally creaky stairs, past the chairlift his mother once used, Warren found more of the same: newly furniture-less carpet, splayed-open cardboard boxes holding trinkets and photo albums, a metal trash can, a Garfield sticker on a full-length mirror. The bottom floor was half underground and smelled reliably dank, an oddly pleasant odor Warren auto-associated with his youth. Off to the right of the stairs, his father’s bedroom loomed pitch-black, and Warren felt a twinge of an old childhood fear at approaching this lightless basement room alone. The fear escalated more than Warren wished to admit while he slapped around fruitlessly for the light switch, but when his hands found it, the slow fade of the fluorescent overheads eroded that feeling and revealed a truly empty space: not only was all the furniture gone but the carpet and pad had been pulled up as well, owing to the subterranean seepage against which his parents had fought mostly in vain for nearly 40 years. The painted concrete floor’s stains and peeling made the room look less like sleeping quarters and more like an interrogation chamber.

Warren exited (but left the light on) and walked into what his family had always called the rec room, a lengthy space (42 feet end to end, his mind hiccupped) that had once held an elaborate stereo, stacks of vinyl albums, a wall of books, several generations of video-game consoles (Colecovision through Super Nintendo, if memory served), and both ping-pong and pool tables. All that remained now was the pool table. He’d hoped the old futon couch would still be here so he could sleep on it (uncomfortable though it was), but no. Even the bookshelves and firewood box were barren.

“The goddamn pool table,” Warren sighed. No wonder it got left behind. The ping pong table was bought new and had still, four decades on, been in good shape, though the net needed replacing. This thing, on the other hand, had become shabby family legend almost instantly. Warren’s father bought it soon after they’d moved in from a decrepit billiard hall that was going out of business. It was visibly worn from day one, boasting scratches and scuffs but also an almost comic instability – when touched or bumped, it creaked and swayed side to side. Warren had tightened the relevant bolts countless times (his father was hopelessly unhandy), but it never lasted long, and this ritual had provided Warren with one of his favorite memories, a memory that came flooding back as he stood in this huge, unfamiliarly-empty room. Something about lying on his back under the pool table put Warren at peace, and he would regularly crawl underneath it when the legs needed tightening and just stay there, flat on his back, gazing at the table’s dusty underside, staring at the light seeping evocatively through the spaces between ill-joined pieces of wood. More than once, Warren had lost track of time during this weird reverie, never sleeping but perhaps not entirely conscious, either, eventually rolling out onto the open floor and rejoining the family upstairs, his parents asking where he’d been all this time. Warren grinned at the memory’s richness and subliminally understood where he’d sleep this night. The house held no softer, padded surfaces anymore, anyway, so what did it matter where he lay?

He wondered if the balls were still in the table and reached into the return opening, scraping the back of his hand on broken plastic molding. The balls were there, all right, and Warren involuntarily grabbed three of them, numbers 4, 5, and 9. He thunked them onto the faded green felt and remembered the table’s most famous trait: it was warped such that any rail shots curved toward the center. As kids, he and his friends learned very quickly to use that warp to their advantage, playing the curve to hit balls that might have been unreachable on a regulation, defect-free surface. There were no longer any cues, of course, but Warren picked up the 5 and gently underhanded it along the right-hand rail, chuckling as it passed the side pocket and arced toward the middle as he’d seen it do hundreds of times before. Then his muscle memory kicked in and he grabbed the other two balls, rolling them rapidly toward the 5 and banking them off the far rails so they’d sink in the corner pockets. It took him a few tries but he finally sunk them all, enjoying the still-immensely-satisfying sound of pocketing balls.

Warren rapped the table surface twice and was walking toward the rec-room windows when his phone buzzed. You get there OK?, his sister Alice texted. He re-pocketed his phone, continued to the windows, and pulled open the curtains. Holly bushes still rose about a third of the way up the windows; above that Warren saw the few small remaining trees in the backyard, the top of the viny back fenceline, and the dusky indigo sky tinged with oranges and purples from the setting sun. He surveyed this scene for a few moments and was about to reply to Alice when he heard the upstairs floor creak overhead behind him.

Warren frowned and looked around at where the sound seemed to have come from. He tried to remember if Alice was in town – she lived half an hour away with her second husband and two stepsons – but thought she wasn’t. She had always visited more regularly than Warren had, so it wouldn’t be unheard of for her to drop by unannounced, but he half remembered her saying she was traveling this weekend. He plucked out his phone and typed, Yeah, easy trip. Are you in town? In a few seconds she replied, No. At the in-laws til Sunday. That’s right. OK. Have fun, Warren sent back. Alice responded with a thumbs-up emoji.

He tried to think of any other friends or family members who might have come over and into the house. His parents, though, had been virtual hermits for the past 20 years, rarely leaving the house and maintaining almost no friendships. Most of their closest relatives had already died, and those relatives’ offspring were scattered elsewhere around the country, so Warren doubted there was anyone left who would be here. A neighbor? Possible but unlikely, as the Dimions had never consorted much with their neighbors. Hospice or caregivers? Even less likely – his mother had refused hospice care, and his father didn’t tell anyone he was dying let alone arrange for hired help. Maybe I imagined it, Warren thought.

He was heading back through the long room bound for the stairs when the floor creaked again, this time directly above him. He stopped and looked up at the ceiling. “Well. Didn’t imagine that,” he muttered. His pace quickened as he approached his father’s room (glad I left the light on, he mused) and climbed the stairs to his right, eyes on the landing above, not worried about being quiet or stealthy. “Hello?” he said from the doorway into the empty kitchen. “Somebody here?” He crossed the long kitchen floor toward the front door looking for signs of ingress but found none: the balcony door off the kitchen to his left was still closed as was the front door. He walked through all the upstairs rooms, but they were empty save for more moving-house minutiae.

He then walked out into the front yard. The driveway held only his gray Corolla, and the street was empty other than a few cars parked in front of neighboring houses. Looking up at the darkening sky, he breathed in deeply for several moments, savoring the cool, smoke-free air. “Maybe it’s just settling,” he muttered after a long exhale. As if this idea resolved the issue, he went to get his overnight bag from the car and had just reached the right-rear-door handle when he heard the house’s metal security door bang shut. He gasped and pivoted, heart pounding in his ears. No one was on the front porch, and the inner door was still open. “What the fuck?” Warren said, uncomfortable at the quaver in his voice. He immediately got irritated, grabbed his bag from the car’s backseat, slammed the car door, and marched toward the house, locking the car with a squeeze of the key fob.

On the porch, he dropped his bag and opened the security door to full gape so he could time its closing. He watched as it swung slowly shut, finally slamming home with a decisive bang. Eight seconds. I was out here longer than eight seconds, he thought, smirking. He opened the door again, pushed it all the way to the wall, and held it there for a moment before releasing it. This time, the door remained idle for one…two…a little over three seconds before it began its slow arc. After it banged shut again, he thought, So, say twelve seconds. Enough time? Warren decided it was. Although he was sure he heard the door close after he walked out, maybe that was just an aural memory. Maybe it took longer to ease shut than it used to. “Stop being an idiot,” Warren said to himself dismissively. He went inside and threw the deadbolts on both front doors.

After using the restroom and searching fruitlessly for food, he ordered a pizza to be delivered.


Later, under the pool table, Warren watched Netflix for a while on his phone until he got sleepy. He hadn’t thought to bring a pillow or blanket, so his overnight bag and windbreaker served these purposes.

With the curtains drawn, the room was nearly pitch black, and it irked Warren to discover that he was scared. The pool table was at the far end of the long room relative to the door, meaning he was all-too aware of the forty-plus feet of darkness nearby. He resisted the urge to pull his windbreaker over his head and instead just focused on the table’s underside until his eyes began to get heavy.

Soon Warren was dreaming about a volcano out of which sprouted a horned, Fantasia-like demon that threw purplish lightning bolts at a smoky, ruined landscape. He wasn’t sure what eventually jolted him awake, and he had just instinctively remembered the earlier floor creaks overhead when he heard the front security door slam shut upstairs. “Fuck,” Warren gasped. Don’t sit up and hit your head, he thought sarcastically. He lay motionless waiting for some other sound, his mind attempting to tick methodically through reasons the door would have slammed. Only one, he thought – someone coming in or going out. With a sudden rush of courage, Warren rolled out from under the table (don’t turn your back on the darkness!, his younger self shouted), stood, and willed himself through the lightless room until he got to the door and light switch. He flicked it on with an index finger and whirled around to survey the room, which was empty, of course. He stood there several seconds and was just about to head upstairs when the upstairs floor creaked, this time toward the end of the room, beyond the pool table. “All right, asshole,” Warren said quietly, “Time to end this.” He looked around and rummaged in cardboard boxes for a weapon – his dad had owned a few military-issue pistols that were surely long gone – but found nothing more sinister than what appeared to be a third- or fourth-grade school photo of his sister in a silver metal frame. Despite the amateurish book and ruler outlines etched into the frame, it was solid and heavy, which he proved to himself by slapping it into his palm a few times. “OK, sis. Let’s go,” he said.

Warren sped past the darkened bedroom to his left and concentrated on taking the stairs two at a time, which did nothing to prevent the hairs on the back of his neck from prickling up like always. He stepped into the kitchen, hit the light, and lifted the picture frame prepared to strike, but there was no one there. “Hello?” he called after a beat and held his breath to focus his hearing. Not a sound. He walked across the long kitchen floor, creaking as he went and blankly comparing his creaks to the ones he’d heard downstairs, senses alert for any disturbance. His pulse quickened as he peeked into the entry hall, but the front door was closed and locked just like he’d left it. He walked to it, turned the deadbolt, and slowly opened the inner door. The metal security door was closed as well. Warren pushed on it gingerly, but it had no give whatsoever. He sighed, stepped up to the security door, and looked out the window.

A dark shape appeared to be moving where the corners of the yard and the driveway met the street. Warren stared at the shape with incomprehension. His first unbidden thought was that it was a trash bag, but he hadn’t yet set out anything to throw away. A dog?, he wondered. No, it was too flattened, seemed too formless. But it was definitely moving – he could see that now.

Warren turned the deadbolt, opened the door, and stepped out onto the cold concrete front step before walking into the dewy grass, never taking his eyes from the dark shape, whose slowly moving surface bore a yellowy sheen from the streetlight. Stepping around one of the yard’s lone remaining trees, he was about five feet from the shape when he stopped abruptly and went cold from the inside out.

The shape was indeed a large black trash bag that pulsed weakly in and out at irregular intervals and angles. Warren could hear something sliding and pushing against the smooth plastic as the movements continued. He stepped closer despite the rising panic and started to hear whimpers. “Hey,” he said involuntarily. It was then he realized someone was inside the bag, the pulsing movements feeble attempts to tear the plastic and escape.

“Hey,” he said again without really knowing he’d done it. He stepped right up next to the bag and put his hands on his knees, peering intently at the jerkily undulating shape. I have to call the police, Warren thought, and he had just slapped at his right hip looking for his phone when the metal security door slammed shut again. “FUCK!” he shouted, jumping back and nearly falling down. He looked at the front door, but no one was there. And then the bag said his name.


He looked down at the bag. It was torn open. A naked, jaundiced figure lay coiled up inside but moving slowly, an elbow and a forearm appearing, and then a face in profile. Warren stared, eyes wide. The picture frame slid out of his sweaty palm and hit the ground.

It was his mother.


Her head turned slowly toward him. Her skin was yellow and saggy, with grime visible in the creases even in the wan light.


She looked at him with mustardy eyeballs. Her voice was a croaky whisper, her throat clotted.

Warren. Run.

Warren began to sob. “Mom!” he managed. “What is this?”

Run. A thin arm the color of fish belly then pushed out of the bag opening, wrapped itself around his mother’s body, and pulled her with obvious effort farther down into the bag. Her face contorted into the most anguished look he’d ever seen before her body doubled in on itself painfully and disappeared.

“Mom!” he shrieked. Then Warren threw himself onto his knees and reached in with both arms to pull his mother out, but he fell into the bag, into darkness, and he lost consciousness, the scent of old earth and fresh decay in his nostrils.


Warren awoke to a dull ache down his right side. He lifted his head, but his neck had such a crick he couldn’t lift it far. He opened his eyes and was hopelessly confused for a few seconds, because what he saw was his car. He blinked at it a few times and then craned his neck around despite the pain. He was in the front yard, curled up in his gym shorts and t-shirt, shivering from the chill, wet with dew, exposed skin prickly and cross-hatched from the crisp autumn grass.

It was early daylight, perhaps 6:30 a.m. Warren lay his head back down on the ground for a moment and tried to gather thoughts. When details from the night before began coalescing, he remembered the dark shape and why he had come outside, and he shot up off the ground with a panicked groan despite the soreness in his side and neck. His bare feet scuffed along the rough gray driveway as he balanced himself and looked down where the trash bag had been last night. But other than a flattened patch where he had lain (all night, he thought with distaste), the grass showed nothing. He looked instinctively up at the front door and frantically scanned the immediate vicinity in front of him. Nothing seemed amiss. Warren exhaled as if he hadn’t done so in hours. “Fuckin’-A,” he blurted and laughed.

Shaken by the lingering images but relieved nonetheless, Warren walked slowly down the driveway and sidewalk to the front door. He was about to mount the small steps to the porch when he froze.

There were dirty smears all over the porch’s painted concrete, as though someone with muddy feet had repeatedly slipped while trying to enter the house.

Warren stared at this sight until a wiry panic made him look down. The short expanse of gray concrete between the grass and the steps also bore streaks of mud along with a few larger clogs, and he had stepped right in it all. He lifted his right foot to inspect the sole – it was filthy.

“Shit,” he spat and hopped backward into the grass where he dragged them one at a time to get rid of the mud. When they were cleaner and damp with dew, he looked back up at the porch, saw the streaky mud again, and exhaled irritatedly through his nostrils.

“I am going inside. I am getting dressed. I am gathering my shit. I am locking the door. And I am leaving.” Warren said all this firmly and pointedly as though trying to convince himself to do it. He maneuvered around the mud and opened the metal security door (no mud on the doorknob, his mind noted). But his strides into the house were short-lived. Once inside the foyer, what he saw stopped his motion with the force of a large fist in the middle of his chest.

There were more muddy streaks on the foyer’s white ceramic tile and on the kitchen’s old, indented carpet. And beyond that lay a torn black trash bag. It was empty but dirty and visibly stretched, as though something inside had forced its way out. Not fully aware that he was doing so, Warren walked forward to see what he already knew was there beyond the bag. Muddy streaks, splayed at crazy angles on the carpet and extending to the end of the kitchen, all the way to the door that led to the laundry room and the stairs.

I should leave right now, Warren mused, but everything’s downstairs – clothes, car key, phone, everything. The thought of his phone made him look on the wall where his parents’ old landline phone always hung. It was still there. Call 911, his mind shouted. And tell them what?, he countered. Someone tracked mud into the house and left a trash bag behind?

“No,” he said aloud back to himself. “Say someone’s in the house.” An intruder, he added mentally. Stepping to the phone, careful to avoid the mud, he plucked the handset out of its cradle, put it to his ear, and started to dial but realized there was no dial tone. Punching the numbers anyway did nothing. As he began to hang up, he heard a sound like low white noise. He put the handset back to his ear. “Hello?”

Intruder, said a voice from the phone. It was quiet and raspy.

“Who is this?”

Intruder, the voice said again. Warren could discern neither gender nor age.

“If this is a prank, you’re a fucking psycho and I will call the cops,” Warren barked. The sudden heat of anger felt good.

Warren, the voice said. Stay with us.

For a time Warren couldn’t speak. This last phrase dissipated the anger and left him aghast. What is happening?, his mind pled.

Stay with us. It sounded like multiple voices now.

“I...I don’t…,” Warren stammered. “I don’t know what’s going on.” He paused, then: “Who are you?”

Silence now, save for that low white noise. It was barely audible.

“Who are you?” Warren said again.

Intruder. Back to a single voice, the same raspy one as before. Then, after a beat, came a different voice. It was loud and booming and guttural and furious.


“GODDAMN IT!” Warren shouted involuntarily, and he threw the handset at the wall. “FUCK YOU!” he screamed, nearly hysterical.

The voice from the phone was repeating INTRUDER! over and over so loudly Warren could hear it clearly even with the handset lying on the floor six feet away from him, its long, tangled cord still swaying after his throw. He scrambled over and grabbed the cord so he could hang up, but he had too much slack, and the handset shot off the floor, smacked him in the knee, and then ricocheted upward, narrowly missing his chin and nose. After he finally grasped the handset, the voice still bellowing, he slammed it down into the cradle and marched toward the stairs, sidestepping the bag and the mud, maniacally determined to leave as fast as possible.

Before he made it to the stairs, though, he heard one of the bedroom doors pop open down the hall back beyond the front door, and he froze in place.

Heavy footsteps in the hall.

“Who’s there?” Warren called.

The footsteps stopped, but he still heard the floorboards creak as if under shifting weight.

“Answer me,” Warren demanded. “Who’s there?”

The same voice from the phone, the quieter one: Intruder. Warren’s heart felt like it would stop. He tried to say something, but his mouth and throat suddenly felt sandblasted.

Then the louder voice came again: INTRUDER! It was so loud Warren's ears went staticky.

Warren ran. Out of the kitchen, down the stairs two and three at a time. He bolted into the rec room and all the way to the pool table, throwing himself underneath to grab his bag and windbreaker. His head was a maelstrom of wild thoughts (Fuckin’ house is haunted! Lost my fuckin’ mind! Haven’t done drugs or been blackout drunk in years!), and then he collapsed, openly weeping from fear and stress.

His sobs subsided after a few minutes, and he lay there with his face in the old carpet, snot and tears running into the fibers. My phone. Alice, he thought suddenly. He propped up on his elbows and reached for his phone. Dead. He’d evidently fallen asleep without plugging it in. “Of fucking course,” he said bitterly and wiped his messy nose on his bare arm. Just leave, he thought. Just leave.

Before he could push himself off the floor, a billiard ball rolled on the table surface a few feet above his head. Warren froze and held his breath. He heard the ball’s rolling cease as it bumped softly against a rail. A few seconds of total silence. Then another ball rolled. And then came a sound like an entire roomful of billiard balls hitting the surface in a cascade, repeatedly knocking and rolling like indoor thunder, and soon billiard balls were raining off the creaky and swaying table, bouncing onto the carpet and rolling all over the room, clacking against each other and the baseboards, as though a tornado had sucked up a billiard hall and spewed its contents all over creation. Warren watched with wide eyes and was sure he could feel the threads of his sanity snapping apart. Eventually he just put his head down and hoped it would stop.

After a time, there was silence again. Warren looked up and around and saw mounds of billiard balls everywhere around the table and the room, piled atop each other despite their surface slickness. He snorted a nervous laugh in spite of himself at the ludicrousness of the scene.

Then he heard the creaking upstairs. Feet moving over the floorboards. This time, though, the sound was heavier, more definite. And soon it became a series of booming steps, like someone in cinder-block shoes running through the kitchen, running to the stairs and toward him, bounding down to the basement level. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. The sound was impossibly loud. Warren thought his heart would explode in terror.

With nowhere to run, Warren balled himself up, still under the pool table, face in the carpet, hands covering his head, knees at his chest. Go away go away go away!, his mind repeated.

Soon there was silence again. Warren looked up, hoping the balls wouldn’t be there, but they were. He listened for footsteps in the room but heard nothing. After gathering his courage, he climbed out from under the table and stood up.

There really were mounds of billiard balls all over the large room. Easily hundreds of them. The tabletop held plenty too. Warren looked up expecting to see a hole in the ceiling, punched through by falling billiard balls, but it was intact.

“Fuck this,” he muttered and dropped to the floor to cram his clothes, shoes and socks, windbreaker, and phone into his bag. Then he stood up and turned around to leave and had just begun to maneuver around the balls when he saw movement to his immediate right. A mini-avalanche of billiard balls clacked down the slope of a large mound, rolling into his feet and revealing a black hole around which the surrounding billiard balls somehow maintained their positions, as though they were shiny round bricks packed into mortar. And then came a sound he’d heard the night before: a slippery pushing against plastic, trying to get out. Warren wanted to look away but found he couldn’t. Black plastic began to stretch outward from the hole. Run! Warren’s mind screamed, but he was transfixed.

A tear appeared in the plastic, followed by familiar yellowed flesh, mottled with grime.

Warren. His mother again.

Warren. Run.


But it was too late. The thin white arm shot out of the mound and snatched Warren’s calf so hard and fast that he fell and did the splits, like a bad cheerleader. The arm already had his right leg halfway inside the hole, and he felt himself being slowly dragged over billiard balls and carpet toward that opening. Warren screamed wordlessly and fought to get loose, but what had been set in motion would not be stopped. As he was pulled into the hole, his left hip in agony from his backward-stretched left leg, he struggled for purchase on the mound of billiard balls, but his hands just slid around on the smooth surfaces. Then he passed completely into the hole, the stench of decay and fetid earth filling his head, and he was gone.

October Horror Goodies Part 2.

Here's part 2 of my October fetish list. Somewhat spooky story coming this afternoon!

October Horror Goodie 16/31: Some Will Not Sleep: Selected Horrors – Adam Nevill (2016)

I started this exercise on October 1 by singing Adam Nevill’s praises for Last Days, and while I’ll eventually get to another of his novels, we now arrive at his first short-story collection. Some Will Not Sleep brings together previously-published stories from throughout Nevill’s career, so it’s worthwhile for the completionist fan (e.g., me) regardless of literary quality, but fret not about the quality – all of these tales are good, and several are superb enough to merit individual mention/inspection. “The Original Occupant,” with its Briton searching for a lost friend in Scandinavia, is an obvious antecedent for Nevill’s own The Ritual (he himself says as much in the “About These Horrors: Story Notes” section), and anything related to that book almost has to be golden. “Yellow Teeth” is a longer story whose length expertly builds both tension and your own disdain for the roommate/squatter whose audacity drives the plot toward a horrific conclusion (this tale also inspired a more recent Nevill book, Under a Watchful Eye). Despite its flat, placeholder-ish title, “Pig Thing” is an enormously effective example of short fiction’s compact power: stretched into a novel, this story about a…well, yeah, about a pig thing selectively stalking New Zealand villagers might easily become pedestrian, but in short form it’s taut, detailed, and merciless. “What God Hath Wrought?” is equal parts Blood Meridian, The Dark Tower, and Nevill’s own Last Days, all in a dozen or so pages, and if this combination doesn’t get your attention, then what are you even doing with your life? Here’s one story you’ll wish were longer.

And then there’s “The Ancestors,” the best selection in the book. When I finished this one – think of it as Toy Story plus Kôji Suzuki minus any trace of novelty or mirth – I felt I’d been gut-punched by a gigantic and sneaky fist. It does so much with so little (heh) in so few pages that I don’t think I could have anticipated the enormity of the ending, and I doubt you will either. In a lifetime of reading, I can’t recall ever being this deeply unsettled by a short story. Such is the power of Nevill’s writing. Worth mentioning too are the hardcover’s tactile pleasures: the lightly-raspy dust-jacket texture, the luxurious paper stock, the super-creepy cover art (see photo), the recurring Ritual Limited black-goatskull-of-the-woods sigil. So, yes, get this book. Your hands and eyes will thank you, even if its contents prevent you from sleeping. Buy it here: http://www.adamlgnevill.com/ritual-limited-shop/.

October Horror “Goodie” 17/31: Summer of Night (1991)

Buckle up, folks, because it’s sacred-cow-stabbing time…

Dan Simmons needs an editor, or a tough-love friend, or a tough-loving-editor-friend, or something. He can be an inarguably great writer, but his books tend to drag on longer than The Walking Dead (which I absolutely hate). The first Simmons book I read was The Terror, his partial-fiction account of an ill-fated Arctic expedition that, despite its length and occasional bloat, is a badass book weaving microbiologist-level historical detail, Inuit mythology, and ice. (Also, its AMC miniseries adaptation is excellent.) Then I read Drood, Simmons’s what-if about the last days of Charles Dickens, the general unreliability of Wilkie Collins as a decent human being, and a haint named Drood who perhaps inspired Dickens’s unfinished final novel and who I, for some reason, picture as looking like Al Lewis / Grandpa Munster after a head-on collision. The Drood concept is fantastic, and many of its scenes are masterfully rendered, but – and I really think Simmons tried to emulate Dickens here – the whole affair just takes too damned long. If it were maybe 300 pages – you know, if it had been edited AT ALL – I think it’d be wonderful. Hell, if someone would omit half the instances where Dickens says “My dear Wilkie,” the book might sink below 200 pages. Plus, I wanted to bludgeon the omnipresent Collins with a pipe wrench before the book even really got going; Simmons’s portrait of Collins’s delusional, jealous ass makes Salieri look like Fred Rogers. And then I read A Winter Haunting, which, turns out, is a sequel to Summer of Night. It’s slimmer and less bloated than Terror and Drood, and it was a fun, quick read that didn’t require having read its predecessor first, so if you’re looking for a recommendation here, this is it: go read A Winter Haunting. (You should read The Terror and Drood as well, but make sure you bring provisions.)

Which brings me to Summer of Night, and it mainly just pissed me off. Simmons’s penchant for minute detail and complex plot skeins is on full display in this book, but I swear it seems like he got tired, oh, around page 499 and just brought the whole thing to a deus ex machina-style close. All the crazy shit that goes on – an oozing ghost soldier, putrefacted holes in the ground, disappearing kids, shadows that push against closet doors, preteens enduring lifetimes of physical and mental anguish in a few days – builds and builds and builds for hundreds of pages……and then none of it gets tied together except by small-town association with the much-too-desperately-named Ashley-Montague family and their Borgia Bell that hung in the old school and apparently caused lots of the aforementioned crazy shit. How did the bell accomplish all this? What was its psycho-mechanical makeup? To what end were kids killed or rendered undead? Whence that funnel-face the antagonists apparently got while on the attack? Simmons answers none of this, even obliquely. That old school gets pages and pages of exposition, which was fine when I thought it had a payoff, but it didn’t. Now, I don’t need everything to fit together perfectly in the end. I like messy, pomo, avant-garde stuff aplenty. Not that Scott Smith is any of those things, but I read The Ruins a few years ago and liked it very much specifically BECAUSE it has no tidy closing explanations, no overt ugly-Americanism, no global-warming-related mutations. The vines were evidently just evil, evil carnivores, period. Good. But killer vines in a relatively slim novel are worlds away from a long and intricate plot that endeavors to paint an entire community’s population in dusty, often mottled closeup. Imagine Stand by Me mashed up with Hellraiser minus the existence of anything substantive and creative enough to link the two – that’s what Summer of Night was for me. I reacted similarly to this book as I did to King’s It: a number of promising elements and a handful of genuinely terrifying moments that fizzle out lazily in the end. (See? Sacred cows. Told ya.)

Lest I leave the impression that the whole book sucks (it doesn’t), one scene in Summer of Night is so effective it almost makes up for the bullshit ending: page 339 in my copy, where Mike O’Rourke watches Father Cavanaugh get attacked by the ghost soldier in the cemetery. DAMN, MAN. Otherwise, meh. Go read A Winter Haunting.

October Horror Goodie 18/31: Paranormal Activity 2-4 (2010-2012)

I wrote at length here a while back about Paranormal Activity and its spawn, so I’ll try to keep this brief and un-repetitive. The usual genre and formula qualms aside, I consider PA1 a horror classic – even knowing it’s fictional, it disturbed me enough to disrupt my sleep for a night or two, and I’ve enjoyed it on repeat viewings. PA2 is a surprisingly worthy prequel that sometimes supersedes 1; some of its plot and setting maneuvers are clever, and the baby-related scares in particular are ROUGH. PA3 falters in some of the usual ways but is mightily effective at times: the sheet-ghost in the kitchen, the game of Bloody Mary, and the reveal-like climax are all legitimately terrifying. Given this run, it’s unsurprising that PA4 fails to live up to its predecessors’ successes. One of the main problems with the found-footage genre is the ridiculous contortions to which filmmakers will/must resort to keep the cameras rolling – after all, without a removed, omniscient, third-person camera, how else will the goings-on get captured? And while I’m apparently more willing or able than many to forgive such contortions, PA4 uses up all my forgiveness: once you resort to carrying around laptops (or hyper-conveniently leaving them on) set to Skype/FaceTime, your well is dry.

Or is it? One quick scene in PA4 is ingenious, surprising, and effectively spooky. Katie, the demon’s target in PA1, now lives across the street from an unsuspecting family with the nephew she kidnapped in PA2 (then called Hunter, now called Robbie). Robbie befriends the family’s similarly aged son, and because the demon (who, we learn in PA3, goes by Toby) sticks with Robbie now, Robbie brings Toby into their home. One night, while they’re playing a boxing game on Xbox Kinect, the kids realize there’s an extra “player” onscreen – one more, in fact, than there are people visible in the room. This realization occurs quickly, almost in an offhand or sidelong fashion, which, of course, increases its effectiveness, since Toby’s presence is implied rather than explied even though at one point this extra player looks straight into the Xbox camera. (Why isn’t “explied” a word? You know what? I’m saying it’s a word. Stupid prescriptivists.)

October Horror Goodie 19/31: Clown (2014 – currently streaming on Netflix)

If you suffer from coulrophobia, don’t watch this film. If you dislike gore, don’t watch this film. If you dislike clown-involved gore, run. If you dislike clown- and kid-involved gore, run faster. (Of course, I don’t actually like any of these things either. I’m just talking about movies. Fictional, fantastical movies.)

Produced by Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel, Green Inferno, the “Bear Jew” in Inglourious Basterds), Clown’s premise is straightforward: a father dons a clown costume to ensure his son gets the birthday party he wants after the clown they booked cancels at the last minute, and then afterwards the father can’t get the increasingly parasitic costume to come off. How the father comes by this clown costume in the first place might be the stupidest, most far-fetched coincidence I’ve ever seen in a movie (you almost need to see it to believe it), but if you can get past this bit of lazy screenwriting, the rest of the film is a lot of scary fun.

Because it involves kids in dire peril, and because it involves Eli Roth, Clown is really, really shocking – this is definitely one of those not-for-the-fainthearted outings where seemingly every few minutes brings another “Aw, they’re not actually going to do THAT, are they?,” and then, as sure as you’re born, they do it. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the semi-climactic set piece toward the end occurs in a huge indoor playground (ball pits, labyrinthine slide structures, etc.), and I’ll also say that whoever decided to put that clown in this setting is a very particular kind of demented genius. Overall, this is a creepy, well-made horror film that doesn’t skimp one bit on the gritty realism or blood and guts (and noses, and arms…).

p.s. Watch for the confetti! LOL

October Horror Goodie 20/31: Pet Sematary (1983)

Pet Sematary is probably my second favorite Stephen King novel after The Shining, but it’s the first I truly loved because I didn’t read The Shining until much later. And, to be blunt, Pet Sematary scared the shit out of me almost solely because of King’s evocation of those woods; they’re frightening on their own – the Lazarusian burial ground and what it rebirths just add to the horror. In fact, my favorite part of the book is the Wendigo passage during Louis Creed’s trip to bury Church the cat – that sense Louis has of something massive moving through the trees became immediate nightmare fuel for me. Pet Sematary was also one of the first novels (maybe THE first) where I truly cherished the movie of it I made in my head. As a result, I’ve never cared for the 1989 film adaptation, but I do have reasonably high hopes for the new one about to come out.

October Horror Goodie 21/31: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project is embedded firmly enough in our cultural consciousness that it may be easy to forget a time when a sizable number of people really weren’t sure whether the story it tells actually occurred. And while I overall don’t have much optimism about the general population’s mean IQ, in this case the reason for the uncertainty had less to do with intellect or reason and had much more to do with the relative infancy of the internet. In 1999, we did have the internet, of course, and email and message boards, but social media didn’t exist (at least not in any widespread way): no mySpace (lol), no Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube, nothing that allowed things to go “viral” the way they do now, all of which meant information traveled much more slowly than what we’re currently used to. Thus, if someone back then went to the cinema to see The Blair Witch Project and was on the fence about its authenticity, we should forgive that someone because fact-checking (wow, remember “facts”? I miss those days) simply wasn’t the warp-speed process it can be today.

I guess I’m talking about myself, in a sense. I don’t believe in anything supernatural at all, and I even read a review of this film beforehand that stated the filmmakers created both the story and the frankly brilliant marketing campaign around it, yet I remember going to the cinema on or around Halloween and being unsure whether I was about to see a documentary or a (hopefully) well-designed fake. Maybe I just wanted to feel like this to enhance the viewing experience, but, in my memory, the uncertainty was legitimate.

Regardless, this viewing experience did not disappoint. Like many other people, I’d never seen anything quite like The Blair Witch Project. I was riveted, and I was thrilled by the folks in the theater who reacted LOUDLY to the spectacle onscreen – I mean, most of the theater was shouting stuff like “UH-UH! DON’T GO IN THERE!” and “AW, HELL NO!” and “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!” and “SHIT, I’D BE GONE! NOPE! NOPE!” through two-thirds of the film. It was fun, and the film was scary.

And then I drove home alone (I went with a buddy of mine, but we met at the theater and drove separately). I’ve never been so aware of how sprawling and dark the rear of a standard-size car can be. I had, as the jocks say, my head on a swivel, constantly looking around for something in the backseat.

It was awesome.

October Horror Goodie 22/31: Grave Encounters (2011)

The found-footage genre was past stale by 2011, so horror fans then and now are fully justified in groaning and eye-rolling when they encounter yet another movie that asks us to believe the camera somehow kept recording (often at a perfect angle) no matter how much splattery mayhem went on around it. Such is the case with this movie. A film crew for the fictional reality show Grave Encounters goes to shoot an episode in the also-fictional and allegedly haunted Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital, and you can probably guess nearly everything that happens next: skepticism, skepticism-but-WTF-was-that?, disbelief, false alarms, crew members disappearing one by one, gradual explication, overwrought straight-into-the-camera soliloquies, blood and gore, et al. And yet, I like this movie. Its setup and framework are wincingly formulaic, but once the spooky shit starts happening, there’s something about the way the hospital turns into an architectural Möbius strip that’s hard to resist – the film crew literally can’t get out of the building because every potential exit either dead-ends or takes them right back inside. Plus there are plenty of genuinely terrifying moments, and the ghosts’ scary faces are awesome (see photo). Not a good film by any means but worth your time for the sturdy scares.

October Horror Goodie 23/31: Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist helped solidify one of  the horror genre’s most enduring formulas: family with young kids + unexplained occurrence involving one kid + bizarre/scary events related to said occurrence + quirky paranormal investigators (typically one female seer and two male technicians) + revelation of past/heretofore unknown macabre occurrences + epic showdown of Dark Forces versus family & paranormal investigators + partially happy ending = horror movie. (Seriously, if you analyze movies from the 1980s forward, you’ll see that a large number of the scary ones conform almost perfectly to this scheme.) And this is also another film that’s become so culturally entrenched (“They’re HEE-er!,” “Go into/away from the light,”“This house is clear,” etc.), it’s easy to forget that, despite its plentiful schmaltz, Poltergeist has some incredibly scary moments: the tree, specters floating downstairs, the deranged howling when Diane (JoBeth Williams) opens the bedroom door, the mouth-like closet door and its awful sentinel, that damn clown doll, and so on. However, as with the original Halloween films, I also bought the novelization of Poltergeist back in the early 1980s, and I also read it several times, and I also liked it better because it was scarier. A LOT scarier. For instance, remember the movie scene where Marty the paranormal investigator sees maggots roiling out of a steak on the countertop, pukes in a utility sink, and then proceeds to rip the flesh off his face in the mirror, all of which was an imagined product of the poltergeist’s shenanigans (i.e., this didn’t physically happen to him)? Remember how terrifying this scene is? I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I tell you this same scene in the book goes on for several pages, and what’s described in those pages is immeasurably worse than what’s in the movie. Essentially, instead of tearing his face off, Marty becomes paralyzed (he can’t move or cry out but otherwise retains all his senses) and must watch – and feel – as armies of critters march toward and onto him and skin him clean. As in the film, all this terrible shit doesn’t physically happen to him, but trust me when I say this detail matters little to you as a reader. It’s incredibly disturbing. Sadly, as with the Halloween novels, I no longer have this book, but it does appear to be available from Amazon (et al.) for reasonable sums. You’ve been warned...

October Horror Goodie 24/31: The Omen (1976)

There’s little left to say that hasn’t already been said about this classic, so I’ll tell you two things you may not know. (You definitely don’t know the first one.)

I remember my godparents, who were always the coolest people in the world to me, once talking about going to see The Omen in the cinema and describing how my godfather was completely freaked out by this movie. At one point, a lady in the theater had a bag of some sort whose shadow or silhouette apparently looked to him like one of the Rottweilers, and he screamed bloody murder right then and there. God, I love that story.

As my previous posts have shown, I really like reading the books on which horror films are based (or the tie-in novelizations), and this installment’s no different. The Omen novel is brief, scary, and enjoyable. I’d even say it’s a bit better than the film because the film’s look and sound are now somewhat dated – except for the animal-park scene with those godforsaken baboons. YIKES.

Oh, also, how about the 2006 remake? (It was released on June 6, 2006 – heh.) It’s actually not bad, certainly better than some other horror remakes (e.g., The Amityville Horror and A Nightmare on Elm Street redos are both terrible). And casting Mia “Rosemary” Farrow as Mrs. Baylock was a particularly inspired choice.

Hello, Damien...

October Horror Goodie 25/31: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

To me, perfect films can be somewhat different from favorite films. They may often overlap, of course, but favorites can be imperfect (e.g., Apocalypto) while still conjuring certain memories or moods, all of which combined might make them favorites. And yeah, the films I consider perfect are some of my favorites: No Country for Old Men, In Bruges, Eastern Promises, Quiz Show, That Thing You Do!, and so on. But Shaun of the Dead might be the most perfect film I’ve ever seen (I know that’s an oxymoron, whatever):

(a) It’s HILARIOUS; for instance, the scene where Shaun and Ed are going through the vinyl collection looking for projectiles to hurl at the undead is, to borrow one of their phrases, a slice of fried gold:

Ed: Purple Rain?
Shaun: No.
Ed: Sign o' the Times?
Shaun: Definitely not.
Ed: The Batman soundtrack?
Shaun: Throw it.
Ed: Dire Straits?
Shaun: Throw it.
Ed: Ooh, Stone Roses.
Shaun: Um, no.
Ed: Second Coming.
Shaun: I like it!

(b) Parts of it are genuinely terrifying; the scene with undead Pete lurking in the shower creeps me out every time, and the last stand at the Winchester is mercilessly intense (and also super gross when David gets eaten).

(c) It’s genius-level clever: “The ‘zed’ word. Don’t say it,” “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!,” the doppelganger group of friends, et al. The plenteous horror-genre allusions and callbacks are as spot on as spot on can be.

(d) It’s one of the only horror-comedies I like, mainly because of (a) & (b) above – Shaun of the Dead is actually funny, and it’s actually scary. Most horror-comedies tilt too far in one direction for my taste (usually comedy), and anyway I’m not much for horror-comedies to begin with; like the Offspring say, I gotta keep ‘em separated.

October Horror Goodie(s) 26/31: 28 Days Later... (2002) and 28 Weeks Later... (2007)

Two words. Say them with me now: FAST ZOMBIES™. I can well imagine that some film prior to 2002 first introduced the idea of zombies that moved faster than drunken sloths, but 28 Days Later… certainly rammed this idea into the collective consciousness. And what a brilliant idea it is. A slow-but-unstoppable horde of undead is terrifying enough; the unstoppable-AND-hella-fast undead is an order of magnitude worse (or better, if you’re watching). I also think the speedier variety pings something in our DNA, a limbic memory that reaches back to our prehistoric ancestors’ reality of being chased by feral creatures.

If you’ve somehow never seen this film and its sequel, here’s a summary:

In 28 Days Later…, lab experimentation on a “rage” virus runs amok after a band of PETA-like activists tries to free infected chimpanzees and unknowingly unleashes this virus on London and then the entire UK. Twenty-eight days after this, Jim the bicycle courier (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a coma (he was hit by a car before the infection outbreak) in an utterly deserted hospital and wanders dazedly around for a bit before he’s chased by a group of infected he disturbed in a church (this is one of the scariest movie scenes ever). This chase leads him to two fellow survivors, Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomi Harris, being a total badass), who explain everything to the still-very-much-bewildered Jim. After “losing” Mark (in another of the scariest scenes ever), Jim and Selena find two more survivors, Hannah (Megan Burns) and Frank (the always-wonderful Brendan Gleeson), and the four of them set out looking for a British Army base that’s broadcasting “salvation is here!” over the radio. I’ll spare the rest to avoid further spoilers, but suffice to say that 28 Days Later… is one of my perfect films: literally everything is handled in the most believable way possible, the acting is superb, the dialogue is far superior to that of many horror films, and the scary sequences are so well executed and so intense that they’re nearly guaranteed to make you physically uncomfortable, especially on a first viewing. This is a phenomenal achievement.

Which means 28 Weeks Later… must be a disappointment, right? WRONG. In Weeks, we’re (ahem) 28 weeks beyond the events in Days, and we begin at a house somewhere in the English countryside, where survivors are holed up trying to reconstruct a normal life. A young boy on the run soon arrives, but the undead who’ve been chasing him arrive too, and they proceed to tear into the house and infect/kill nearly everyone. Don (Robert Carlyle) escapes through an upstairs window and gets away via boat and canal (my GOD this scene – YIKES). He ends up working for a US Army outpost in the UK to help control the outbreak and restore order, and here he’s reunited with his children Andy and Tammy (the outstandingly-named Mackintosh Muggleton and Imogen Poots). Eventually the kids get bored and escape the military compound to visit their old house; the outcome of this visit is one of the scariest, most surprising turns I’ve ever seen a horror movie take. It is magnificent. Again, I’ll skip the rest to avoid further spoilers. Unlike Days, Weeks has some flaws, the most egregious of which in my opinion is the dynamic among the US Army personnel – it’s lazy, obvious, formulaic action-movie claptrap, and it’s worlds away from the more naturalistic UK Army dynamic in Days. Otherwise, though, almost every frame of Weeks is fantastic, and it has sequences that are as scary and as effective as anything in Days (watch especially for the subway scene toward the end – YIKES).

Lastly, the soundtrack to 28 Days Later… is a real keeper, equal parts ethereal beauty and abject, teeth-grinding terror. It adds immeasurably to the film’s already-formidable power.

October Horror Goodie 27/31: The Ritual (2011)

My two favorite novels of all time are Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Number three is Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, which should tell you something about the esteem in which I hold it. As with Nevill’s Last Days (which began this tedious little exercise), when I finished The Ritual for the first time, I flipped back to the first page and started again. It’s that good; it grabbed me that much. (I’ve now read it four times.)

Longtime friends Dom, Phil, Luke, and Hutch embark on a hiking trip into a very remote Swedish forest, and, as the book’s opening sentence indicates, the trip was a disaster from the beginning: “And on the second day things did not get better.” They find a “dead thing” hanging high up in a tree; it seems to be a deer or elk, but they can’t tell for sure because it’s been so drastically gutted and splayed. This is the book’s opening scene, and it sets the tone for their doomed journey. They spend a night in a decrepit cabin that’s abandoned except for a pagan shrine in the attic, Nevill’s description of which is the first of many chilling tour de force passages in this book.

Tensions old and new arise as the friends struggle through the woods trying to get back to civilization, and the being that left the gory welcome in the tree eventually makes similar work of them all save Luke, who wakes up in a “bed” and house you almost have to read about to believe. He’s been rescued (sort of) by a Scandinavian black-metal band named Blood Frenzy who, because they’re a Scandinavian black-metal band, worship the Black Goat of the Woods and indulge in ritualistic violence while waiting for/trying to bring about Ragnarok. These characters – named Loki, Fenris, and Surtr – live with a nameless and incredibly old woman who tends to Luke’s numerous wounds, but her care has little to do with Luke’s well-being and far more to do with preparing him for the sacrifice she and Blood Frenzy have planned. The unfolding of this ritual makes up the final quarter of the book, the details of which, of course, I’ll spare for those who haven’t read it.

I don’t know how to adequately explain how frightening and well written The Ritual is. Almost every scene is as superb as any horror fiction that’s ever been written. The main characters’ ill-fated passage through the forest is a masterclass in narrative pacing, smothering dread, and absolutely brutal terror; it’s a real humans-v.-(super)nature workout, reminiscent of the intensest sequences in Deliverance (and if you’ve never read Deliverance – the novel upon which the infamous movie is based – oh my god do it now). During one of Luke’s attempts at escape from Blood Frenzy, he ventures into the ancient house’s attic, and what he sees there is one of the most horrifying and macabre chapters I’ve ever encountered in a lifetime of reading. And that’s nearly topped by the old woman’s singing near the novel’s climax along with Luke’s discovery of what her singing actually means. It’s just a brilliant, brilliant story.

As you may know, The Ritual was made into a film that played in UK cinemas last October and arrived on Netflix in early 2018 (still streaming there now). My sky-high hopes for this adaptation plummeted when I learned that the filmmakers cut the Blood Frenzy subplot entirely; however, while I maintain the film would be much better with that subplot intact, it’s actually very good on its own terms, in part because the folk-horror elements that replaced Blood Frenzy are plenty scary. Still, if you’ve neither read the novel nor seen the film, PLEASE read the novel first. It is truly one of the greats.

OK, we’re down to the final four, all of which will be fairly obvious picks...

October Horror Goodie 28/31: The VVitch (2015 – currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime)

It’s rare for a horror film to live up to its trailers [narrows eyes, glares at Halloween 2018], so I’m glad that the joy I experienced when I first saw the trailer for The VVitch not only remained but grew exponentially. I saw it in the cinema the weekend it debuted and loved it, but I could also tell that it requires subtitles/captioning as the period dialect comes so thick and fast that keeping up can be difficult. Compounding this is the film’s lack of overt exposition (a very good thing) and use of mostly natural lighting, which means, because the setting is 1630s New England, it’s dark A LOT, even during daytime scenes. I’ve now watched The VVitch perhaps a dozen times, and I consider it both a modern classic and one of the most satisfying films I’ve ever seen in any genre. It’s also, of course, incredibly frightening.

The story revolves around a family of English newcomers to the continent who are, as the movie opens, being cast out of their village because the father is evidently too sternly religious even for these presumed Puritans. The family then establishes their own homestead out in the wilderness, where things go wrong immediately: their infant disappears (quite literally); the crops are shit, so they’re courting starvation; everyone constantly bickers; the hilarious, proto-ADD twins irritate everyone and sing creepy songs about Black Phillip, the family’s boisterous goat; and so on. Then the oldest son, Caleb, becomes lost in the woods, and when he returns, he’s changed – “witched,” according to his mother, and that’s when everything really deteriorates.

Three things:

1. The scary scenes – the money shots – are just unbelievably terrifying. As awful as the baby-snatching itself is, what comes next is enough to gray your hair prematurely. The long, tense sequence where lost Caleb approaches a cabin while a lovely young witch exits slowly and provocatively towards him is almost too much to bear. And I 100% hid my eyes in the theater when the kids are locked in the barn and they hear a loud thump on the roof.

2. An earlier post of mine extols the virtues of this film’s soundtrack, and as marvelous as it is on its own, its true power comes from hearing it accentuate the onscreen goings-on, especially the Caleb/witch-cabin scene I mention just above. Unholy shit.

3. The ending. Jesus, THE ENDING. It’s such a bold move to handle all these events so straightforwardly and then to conclude the exact same way. A masterstroke if ever I’ve seen one. But I’ll also point out a delicious bit of IMDb trivia: “Although the film's plot was intended to be taken literally, director Robert Eggers has spoken about a few small hints him [sic] and the filmmakers left throughout the film that one might interpret as reasoning behind the events, beyond the obvious supernatural. For example, the rot on the corn is ergot – a hallucinogenic fungus.”

Quite simply, The VVitch is a masterpiece, one of the best and scariest films of all time.

October Horror Goodie 29/31: The Shining (1980)

However old I was when I first watched The Shining (maybe 12 or 13?), I wasn’t ready. It’s one of the first movies that truly freaked me out. Obviously, the now-legendary scenes played a huge part in this: room 237, the elevator gushing an ocean of blood, those damn twin girls, the quick pseudo-bear-costume-and-maybe-fellatio scene (it’s more like a flash) that I thought would give me a heart attack the first time I saw it, and so on. But honestly everything about this film freaked me out. Even to this day, it’s just SINISTER top to bottom. The lighting is spooky. The camera movements and angles are spooky. The score is unnerving. Something’s off about the dialogue patterns – they’re abnormal, sort of floaty, unreal, nightmarish. The color palette and lighting in that bathroom scene with Lloyd is like a graphic designer’s depiction of insanity; it hurts my nerve endings when I watch it.

Compounding the internal horrors of The Shining are the details of its making, especially Kubrick’s perfectionist lunacy and its effects on the actors. Shelley Duvall physically ran out of tears because she had to do so many takes requiring hysterical crying, often with Kubrick berating her, and some people say she never recovered from the experience (Google her and see what I mean). Scatman Crothers was also reduced to tears at one point because Kubrick kept making him do take after take after take of one particular scene, none of which were supposedly all that different. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stephen King did not get along well at all with Kubrick and has regularly bashed this film, saying it’s not a good adaptation of his work and that the TV miniseries version with Steven Weber is superior (lol, OK dude, whatever). Then there are the conspiracy theories about The Shining, most infamously codified in the documentary Room 237, which is maybe the most batshit-crazy thing I’ve ever seen. While I won’t deny some of this doc’s theories are interesting, to say its arguments are flimsy is akin to saying New Orleans occasionally gets humid in August.

As much as I love it, I can’t say Kubrick’s The Shining is a perfect film – it’s too off kilter for that – but it’s definitely one of the most singular and phenomenally effective horror movies I’ve ever seen. Also, the source novel is my favorite Stephen King book by far (despite the overly sentimental ending); 90-plus percent of it is as scary as (if not scarier than) the film, especially the room 217 scene (they changed the number for the adaptation), which, as I said earlier in the month, is the scariest chapter in all of horror fiction. To underscore this point, I dove back into The Shining several years ago while on a work trip and just happened to read through the room 217 chapter right before I tried to go to sleep. Note the phrasing here – no sleep for John that night. ¯\_()_/¯

October Horror Goodie 30/31: The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist remains the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. I was, thankfully, older when I saw this film than I was with The Shining, but I still wasn’t ready for it. I distinctly remember watching it in my bedroom when I was perhaps 15 or 16, and I lasted until the relatively early scene where Regan’s eyes roll over white and she first makes those awful sounds that we now know came from Mercedes McCambridge but which seem wholly inhuman nonetheless. I’m not sure I’ve ever moved faster than I did that night bolting from the floor to the TV knob (not as many remotes back then, millenials).

I won’t waste time blathering on about how soul-deep frightening this film is, ad infinitum, but I will make two points.

1. The 25th anniversary director’s cut (“THE VERSION YOU’VE NEVER SEEN!” screamed the ads) introduced us to the now-infamous “spider-walk” scene, which did what I’d have thought impossible: it made The Exorcist even scarier.

(I know you must be tired of this next statement, but I’m an English major – what else would you expect?)

2. As extreme and shocking as the film is–- and it’s still shocking to me, 30-plus years after first viewing – William Peter Blatty’s novel is just as extreme/shocking, and in places it’s much, much worse. Even the spider-walk scene is somehow just as horrifying in print.

Quod nomen mihi est? La plume de ma tante.

October Horror Goodie 31/31: Halloween (1978)

And so this list ends in the only place it possibly could. Just as the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas IS Christmas for me, John Carpenter’s Halloween IS Halloween.

Like some other older films on this list, I saw Halloween too early, and it absolutely scared the living shit out of me, far more than The Exorcist initially because of how early I saw it. I’ll even say it traumatized me: every darkened space, jack-o-lantern, butcher knife, sheet-ghost, faux-crystal doorknob, or louvered closet door was enough to make me worry about Michael Myers to the point of anxiety. I am not exaggerating. I had sleep problems for an abnormally long period of time, and while Halloween wasn’t the sole reason for this, I know all-too intimately that it was a major factor.

Eventually, this fear morphed into the adrenaline rush we horror fans know and enjoy, and then that morphed into fascination. Similar to my addiction to Jaws, I’m borderline obsessed with the culture of this film, from its status as one of the originators of the slasher-flick genre and a bellwether of independent filmmaking to the things the film doesn't do (no gore, almost no blood) and that peerless 5/4 theme song.

FWIW, (1) I love Halloween II (see previous post); (2) I hate Halloween III: Season of the Witch and have maybe never been as confused as I was when I first read this novelization/saw this movie and could discern no connection with Michael Myers, et al. (because none exists); (3) the other Halloween sequel-like installments are hot, stinky garbage; (4) I actually like the Rob Zombie remakes (or whatever they are) a lot – they’re very different films (bloodier, more violent, far less “innocent”) but scary af; and (5) I was disappointed by the recently released version of Halloween – it’s mainly a sketch of what could have been.

So I watch the original Halloween several times a year, mostly during October. It doesn’t really scare me the way it used to, but I’m always amazed at how that dead white face, some well-placed shadows, and those spare piano notes can make my skin crawl and worry about the dark, empty spaces behind me in the living room. May it always be so.