Category Archives: halloween

31 Days of Halloween (2020): A Story for You

Happy Halloween everyone. Here’s a story, my gift to you on this most wonderful of days.

The Fiddle is the Devil’s Instrument

When Cannon Danvers invited me to one of his famous séances, my first inclination was to decline. Others would have given their right arm or other critical body part to receive such an invitation. Cannon Danvers was a name whispered from the shrouded cities of the Far East to the still-smoldering capitals of Europe to the hills of Kentucky, where I claim ancestry. He was the man who, in the earliest flower of his youth, finally convinced Houdini of the power of mysticism. He had predicted both World Wars and had, in the darkest days of the latest conflict, assured President Roosevelt in a private meeting that we would come through—even if, like Moses of old, the president would not live to see it.

And he just so happened to be my uncle, my mother’s older brother and a stain on the family name. My mother had been a pure-hearted, God-fearing woman, and if she knew her boy was going to be sitting at a table with a known devil-worshiper—and while he attempted to communicate with the spirits at that—well, I guess she’d drop dead right there. She’d passed the spring before, a week after we celebrated VE day. I’m glad I’d made it home on leave from France to be with her in those final moments. But my point being, she was gone now to the Jesus whom she trusted and loved, and nothing could trouble her. As for me, I’d seen enough of war and death to have lost more than a little faith in God. So ironically, I figured a little proof of the devil would be good for my soul.

I’d never met Cannon Danvers. I wondered if his invitation was some attempt to close old wounds, or maybe even to reward me for my service to my country. Whatever was the case, I returned the RSVP with an affirmative and spent a significant portion of my combat pay on a new dinner jacket.

The night came, April 30, the May-eve, which some folks call the Beltane. I knew a little bit about it, about the fires the ancients built to chase away the evil spirits that were said to gather on that evening. I’d read about that—and a lot of other things some folks might frown upon. I guess I have a little bit of my uncle in me after all.

Still, I’d never gone so far as to partake in any of the forbidden rites or celebrations of pagan festivals about which I’d read. I’d never been ready to make that leap of dark faith. Then came the invitation.

Cannon lived on a plantation east of Georgetown, Kentucky, called Haven’s Crest, the home of the Danvers line since Temperance Danvers brought his branch of the family down from Massachusetts following the War of Independence. It passed to Cannon, he being the eldest son, when my grandfather died—well before Cannon began his career as a spiritualist. I suspected my mother resented him as much for the inheritance that had been denied her as for his ungodly ways. And I wondered sometimes if she resented me a little bit, too. For while it might have been the case that my grandfather saw fit to bypass her because she was a woman, it was just as likely that he had frowned upon the fact that she had a child out of wedlock with a man who was a mystery. Truth is, I don’t even know my father’s name. Though Mother might have died godly, everyone makes mistakes.

I arrived at Haven’s Crest an hour after sundown, as instructed, driving the 1937 Model T that had belonged to my mother prior to her death. An attendant directed me to a parking spot next to a line of newer, finer models, and it struck me that I would probably feel more comfortable amongst the staff than the other guests at this party. I parked and fell in line behind an older couple who had also just arrived. I followed them up the path, lit by torches that ran to the front of the house. Music wafted down, beckoning us onward.

That night I entered the ancestral home of my family for the first time—and I did so as a guest. It struck me as ironic, how the accident of birth can change things; how, if I’d been born a generation before in the place of my uncle, such an estate would be mine. Instead, I had little but a shack and forty acres to my name. I’d pondered it often during the war, as I fought and killed men who I might have been, had the spin of the wheel gone differently.

The house was as elegant within as without. A great staircase hugged the wall, twisting down to the grand foyer where I stood. Now doubt it had made for dramatic entrances by southern belles in an age dead and gone if not yet forgotten. The house evidently had electricity; it would have been passing strange for it not to. But our gracious host had chosen to light it this night with tall, black candles. There were hundreds of them, and though the comingling of their illumination provided enough visibility, a hazy smoke hung in the air. The flickering flames danced within it, and the shadows they cast seemed to have deeper forms and more substance than they should have.

I moved cautiously from the entrance to the parlor, my palms sweating. Guests milled about, chatting, laughing, though their friendliness seemed forced to me, as it always did in these settings. I did not care for the wealthy. Or, I should say, I did not care to be amongst them, particularly in large groups. I did not belong. I knew it. They knew it. What’s the point in fighting it? I filled a cup with punch from a bowl made of carved crystal and set out to explore the house.

My feet carried me to where the voices died, away from the crowd, into the depths of the home. I walked down a hall that ended in two polished wooden doors. One was cracked open, and flickering light spilled into the hallway. I opened it, and stepped into a mighty library. It was the kind you’d see in the films, with shelves that went all the way to the ceiling and a ladder that moved on a track from one corner of the room to the next. And books, so many books, too many to arrange neatly, so they were stacked upon one another in several places. And in the center of the room, reading by the light of an electric lamp, sat a man who could only be Cannon Danvers.

“Mr. Danvers,” I said, feeling foolish to have interrupted him, even more foolish to refer to him by my own last name. He looked up at me, studied me for an instant before his face softened and he broke into a smile.

“Why my good fellow, I believe I could certainly call you the same. You must be my sister’s boy.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, standing straighter as he rose from his chair, as if he were an old drill sergeant checking to see if my boots were spit-shined. I’d known natural leaders before, the good and the bad; certain men can command a room merely by their presence. Patton was that kind of man. So was Cannon Danvers. As he strode across the room, I knew he was someone other men would follow. He was not at all what I expected from a spiritualist and a medium.

“So you are Amelia’s son,” he said, shaking my hand. “I was sorry to hear of her loss. And I was sorrier still that we were never able to mend the…break that separated us.” His eyes fell to his feet, as if the shame of it was truly more than he could bear. My questions about the impetus for my invitation were answered. Cannon Danvers wanted to make amends with my dead mother through me.

“I know she always loved you, sir,” I said, and I thought there was at least a good chance it was true. Blood, after all, cleanses all manner of sins.

“Perhaps, perhaps. She’d probably kill me, and maybe you too, if she knew you were here tonight. But I’m glad you came.”

“Well sir, I love my mother, but it’s hard to come back from war and remain prudish about such matters. I figure God let me get through it so I could see everything there is to see, even if some of those things are forbidden.”

The corner of his mouth crept up into a smile. “Yes, I like that view. I like it very much. It is one I have always followed myself. Come over here,” he said, beckoning to me before turning and walking back to his desk. I followed.

A book lay open on the table, its pages yellowed, cracked. Cannon tapped the lamp with a finger.

“Special light bulb,” he said. “It won’t damage the paper in the book, even when it’s as old as this one. The candles outside are for show, of course. Atmosphere. But in here, we don’t take chances with such things. Do you know what this is?”

I did not, of course, but I hesitated to be so bold in my ignorance.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, my boy. There are few who would. It is a Latin translation of an ancient work, the Egyptian Book of the Dead.”

From somewhere deep within the house came the shrill sound of a bow drawn across a fiddle.

“Pyramid funerary text?”

A fire leapt into my uncle’s eyes, and he flashed a toothy grin. I felt a surge of pride in myself. This had pleased him.

“Very good. You know your ancient faiths. But no, this is something different, something most scholars have never imagined, much less seen. This is the true Book of the Dead. Not a text on how to send man into the afterlife. No, this is the book that can bring him back.”

The distant fiddle sounded again, tingling a high pitched squeal as the player sawed heavily with his bow.

“Bring them back,” I said, shivering. “Why would you want to do that?”

“Oh many reasons, my boy. Many reasons. To reveal secrets lost. To impart mysteries undreamt of. Or, as the case may be, to simply show that I can.” Someone hollered in the rooms beyond, and the band kicked off a reel. Cannon glanced toward the door. “So the party begins. Shall we join them?”

“What about the book?”

He grinned. “The book is for later”

He led me back through the maze of corridors, into the grand hall that must have dominated the house. For it was massive, spanning the length of the structure, with great high ceilings that sparkled like the heavens. A stage had been erected at one end, and upon it a band played bluegrass. A man fiddled like the devil, and the caller sang out a song I had never heard about nine yards of other cloth.

“I’ll leave you now,” said Cannon. “But don’t worry. I’ll find you again. Make yourself at home.”

With that he seemed to glide into the crowd, vanishing into a throng of his gala-clad guests.

“He’s something, isn’t he?”

I turned to find a woman, dressed in a long, black gown, wearing a mask to match it, adorned in feathers the color of ravens.

“Why, yes, yes he is.”

The woman smiled, her lips parting to reveal perfectly straight teeth.

“You’ve never been here before, have you?”

“This would be my first visit.”

“Come on,” she said, taking my hand. “Let me get you a drink.”

I followed her to a bar that had been erected on the far side. A waiter chipped away ice from a massive block into a glass, drowning it in generous pours of bourbon. It was my kind of party.

“So how do you know Cannon?” The band fired up a Virginia reel, and even the well-heeled Louisville and Lexington types showed their country blood.

“We’re related, actually. He’s my uncle.”

“Ah,” she said, “so you are the famous nephew. Cannon speaks highly of you.”

“Well that’s flattering, ma’am, though I can’t say what he would know about me.”

“Oh, Cannon knows a great many things, more than any normal man. You should understand that.”

“I’m coming to. So how do you know my uncle?”

“We were lovers once. Oh don’t look so scandalized. I’m a grown woman, and I can do as I like.” She took a step toward me, reached up and rubbed the collar of my jacket between her thumb and her forefinger. The sound of the band had died away as quickly as it had roared to life; now only the fiddler played, sawing a lonesome song of love lost. She leaned forward, her lips touching the small hairs on my ear. “But I’m all on my own, now. And so very lonely. Look for me, when the end is near, if you need a guide to find your way.”

The crowd surged forward, and she receded into it, swept away from me like a pebble on the beach. I had no time to think on it for Cannon Danvers had taken the stage.

The room dimmed as servants extinguished all but a handful of candles. The members of the band vanished into the growing darkness. All save one—the fiddler, who stood behind Cannon, bow set at the ready.

“My friends, thank you all for joining me on this very special evening. Many of you have come before. Some of you have seen extraordinary things. But I assure you, nothing can prepare you for what you will witness tonight.”

A murmur spread through the crowd, excitement and fear, not unlike what I had once heard on the battlefields of Europe.

“I am no maker of tricks or conjurer of illusions. I see things other men cannot see. I know things other men cannot know. In the last few years we have come to understand the essence of matter itself. We have harnessed the power of the atom. For good…and for destruction. But there is knowledge far older, and far more powerful, knowledge that can be found in this book.”

He held up an ancient tome, and even in the dim light I could see that it was the Egyptian Book of the Dead he had shown me in the library before. The fiddler, who until then had stood still and silent, now drug his bow across the strings of his instrument, playing a harsh and evil note that rung just barely within the range of human hearing. The atmosphere thickened, and I grinned. My uncle was quite the showman.

“Yes, I have powers undreamt of by the common magician, and unimagined even by mighty Solomon himself, the lord king of all the mystics. But for the magic we will do tonight, I will need your help. All of your help.” The fiddler’s note quivered. “When I speak the words of power, each line requires an answer. That answer, you will give. Say it simply. Say it loud. Iä! Iä! Say it!”

The crowd answered back—“Iä! Iä!” But I stayed silent. I had read in my studies that while a Christian man could fear no evil if he happened to find himself in the midst of a black mass—however such a predicament might come to pass—he who took part in the ceremony, even if in jest, bound himself to the coven. He had become a member of it, as sure as if he’d pledged his fealty to it, or signed the Black Book in his own blood. Superstition, perhaps, but I was not about to cross it.

I felt eyes on me, and I wondered if maybe someone had noticed my reticence, someone who might report me to my uncle. I looked about, and my gaze locked on hers—the woman whom I had met earlier was staring at me, her dark eyes shining behind her mask. I thought she was grinning, but then a figure passed between us and when he was gone, so was she.

“Very good. Very good,” said my uncle. “The power is strong tonight, and I do believe that we will find profitable magic this Beltane. You will notice that no fires burn in my fields this evening. No, we have not lit the bane, nor shall we. For we do not seek to chase away the spirits, but to welcome them.”

The assemblage laughed and clapped and cheered. I glanced above and noticed that the few remaining candles cast eerie shadows on the ceiling. Undulating black globes that stared down upon us like great, empty eyes. On the stage, my uncle had placed the book on the stand before him. He flipped pages, staring down intently as he went, searching. Then he smiled wide, having apparently found the spell he was looking for. Behind him, the fiddler played so softly that you couldn’t quite hear him. Not with your ears at least. Only with your soul.

“And now we begin, my friends. Now we open the way. Now we call to those beyond. Now we shall see the forbidden.”

He held up his hands, shoulder length apart, palms facing us. Even from that distance, I could see him close his eyes.

“From the realm of the living to the realm of the dead, we beseech thee. Iä! Iä!

The crowd answered as one.

“Anubis, open the gate. Khephri, purify our hearts. Ma’at, find us worthy. Thoth, record our prayer. Iä! Iä!

The crowd answered again, louder.

“Come, Osiris! Come, Sekhmet! Come, Sobek and Heket! Iä! Iä!

As the crowd chanted in reply, even louder than before, I felt a hand slip into mine. “You don’t want to be here when he finishes,” she whispered into my ear, as the discordant sound of the fiddle rippled up my spine.

“Why not?” I turned and looked at her, her eyes grabbing me no less forcefully than if she had clasped her hand upon my shoulder.

“You know why. You know what’s coming.”

“But I don’t,” I said. But as the words left my lips, I knew it was a lie. I did know, somehow. Even if it was only deep down, somewhere that I couldn’t quite see or understand. She smiled, and I let her pull me away, all the way to the door to the great hall. No one barred our way, no one stopped us. Not until she stopped, just beyond the threshold.

“You cannot stay,” she said. “But you must see.”

I looked back into the room. I squinted, and then rubbed my eyes. For something was wrong. The air shimmered. I felt as though I was looking through glass into a world that had sunk beneath the sea. The image was distorted. The people in the crowd seemed to sway, to extend beyond themselves, grotesquely and unnaturally. Only the stage was clear. Only my uncle, and the fiddler who played behind him.

“Make way for Hastur. Make way for He Who Walks in Shadow. Make way for the Crawling Chaos. Come forth, Nyarlathotep! Iä! Iä!

There was a crack, sharp and sickening, like the breaking of many bones all at once. The crowd shrieked in unison, but they did not run. A shadow fell upon them, and then, as they screamed, they began to dance. Legs and arms jerked, spasmed, as if they did not fully control them. Or perhaps it was that their new masters were unfamiliar with such appendages. My uncle’s manic smile faded, and fear crept into the crevices of his face. Only one man seemed unfazed, the one who played a tune I thanked God above I could no longer hear. But he had changed, too, for he was no longer a man. No man’s skin can turn as black as the abyss. No man’s eyes can burn with a fire that would devour souls. No man smiles like that. And no man plays like that.

The candles flared, and the dancers turned to torches, skin melting off bones. And yet still they cried out. Still, they danced.

I saw the moment my uncle’s mind broke, as he gibbered and cackled on the stage, as he tore at his own eyes lest he see what he had done. And the last thing I saw, before the woman, my savior, pulled me mercifully away, was that man, that beast, still fiddling.

We ran. Out of the house. Down the hill. As the mansion burst into flames and turned night into day. We didn’t stop until we reached the road.

“You knew,” I said, as I doubled over with my hands on my knees. “You knew and you didn’t do anything to stop it.”

She stood there, as elegant as if we still danced in the grand ballroom that now burned with Satan’s fire. “I didn’t come to stop it,” she said.

“Then why are you here?”

She took a step forward, extended one lithe hand and lifted my chin with a single finger. An orange light flashed in her eyes, and it wasn’t from the flames. “I came for you. Cannon Danvers, his steps always led here, to this night, to this place. But you, Cyrus, you have many steps left to take. And what a journey it will be.”

There was the sound of rending fabric. Her dress fell away, and two great, black raven wings spread wide from behind her. With one mighty sweep they lifted her into the sky. The firelight flashed across her body as she blotted out the moon, and I let blessed unconsciousness take me into its waiting arms.

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): Even More Horror Shorts

Horror shorts never die. Here are four more horror shorts for your Halloween enjoyment.

First, a unique take on the “somethings in the room with me” trope. Be sure to watch with your headphones in.

Beautiful and creepy, sometimes what you forget is more important than what you remember.

There’s nothing more frightening than technology these days. See Google do some evil

While we are on the subject of technology, enjoy this modern update of the chain letter legend.

I guess I’m on a technohorror kick, cause this is my favorite. Be careful what you dislike.

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): Lovecraftian Rock Opera, part III

In the conclusion to our review of Dreams in the Witch House, the rock opera reaches its conclusion. Darkness falls, and the fight for Gilman’s soul rages on.

11. Blessed are the Faithful

Gilman’s friends unite to conduct an intervention with Gilman on the eve of Walpurgis Night. They urge him to put his faith in God, even as a child has been abducted from town. Meanwhile, chants float down from Meadows Hill…

4 stars

12. Crawling Chaos

But the forces of evil aligned against Gilman are too strong. The nameless cults shout his name, and Nyarlathotep answers them.

5 stars

13. Azathoth

Now Gilman comes face to face with the mad chaos at the heart of all things, the blind idiot god, Azathoth. This is the ultimate conclusion of Gilman’s research—the opening of the way to an ancient evil that lurks beyond all space and time.

4 stars

14. The Sacrifice/No Turning Back reprise

Our story reaches its climax as the moon rises on Walpurgis Night. Now Gilman must decide with whom he stands—the dark forces that he has unleashed or the world of light that he has left behind. Will he fight, or will he give in?

5 stars

15. Between Reality and Dreaming

At the heart of Lovecraftian horror, in my view, is that hope comes with a price. Victories may be won, but only at great cost. So too with Gilman.

5 stars

16. Madness is my Destiny

At the end of all things, Gilman wonders the lost worlds. So his tragedy concludes.

4.5 stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): Lovecraftian Rock Opera, part II

As Dreams in the Witch House continues, Gilman is falling further under Keziah’s spell. Will he turn back in time?

6. No Turning Back

Nope. In one of the great songs on the album, Keziah arrives in her full glory. A combination of sultry and foreboding, Keziah draws Gilman further down the path of forbidden knowledge. Representing the seduction of forbidden knowledge, Keziah is a siren leading Gilman to his own destruction.

5 stars

7. Signum Crucis

As Gilman falls under Keziah’s spell, the devout people who live in the house with him take action. For they have seen the violet light underneath his door, the same light that sages throughout time have recognized as a sign of the satanic. Replete with heavy metal riffs, “Signum Crucis” introduces us to the witch’s familiar, Brown Jenkin.

4.5 stars

8. Nothing I Can Do

Gilman finds himself wondering the deserted streets of an ungodly city, not knowing whether his soul is forever lost. A ballad of despair, Kaziah comes to comfort Gilman, to help him see the inevitability of his fate.

4.5 stars

9. Legends and Lore

Of all the songs on the album, this one is my favorite. Imbuing Keziah with far more humanity than Lovecraft could ever have imagined, “Legends and Lore” is a testament to the genius of the HPHLS.

5 stars

10. The Sleepwalker

 Gilman falls further and further under the spell of Keziah, finding himself walking down the rain-streaked streets of Arkham.

3 stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): Lovecraftian Rock Opera

If there’s one thing fans of Lovecraft love more than his work, it’s criticizing that work, and “The Dreams in the Witch House” has had its fair share. From August Derleth to S.T. Joshi, Lovecraftians have heaped scorn upon the novella. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that jazz, but I find these attacks to be baseless, founded more in critics’ own views of what Lovecraft should be than what he sometimes is. Just as Joshi criticizes another Lovecraftian masterpiece, The Dunwich Horror, as an “aesthetic mistake” that presents a “stock good-verses-evil scenario,” there are some in the horror community who reject the good and evil paradigm altogether in Lovecraftian fiction, particularly when the good guys win.

“The Dreams in the Witch House” not only presents a struggle between good and evil, it contains elements that truly terrify some Lovecraftians—Judeo-Christian concepts. It also has some of the best characters in Lovecraft’s fiction—Brown Jenkin, Keziah Mason, and Walter Gilman. We have call-backs to the Salem witch trials, Cotton Mather, and Judge John Hathorne, Walpurgis Night playing a central role, the appearance of the Necronomicon, Book of Eibon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, and a cutting-edge mathematical explanation for magic and the realms of the Old Ones.

That’s a lot to recommend it, and perhaps it’s no surprise that two of my favorite interpretations of Lovecraft’s work came from this story—the Master of Horror episode directed by Stuart Gordon and the unparalleled H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s production of Dreams in the Witch House: A Lovecraftian Rock Opera. Both are great, but the rock opera is brilliant. The HPLHS cut no corners here. Brian Sammons, horror critic and author, laid it out best:

First off, the HPLHS got some talented ringers to back them up on this massive, musical Mythos odyssey. The opera has 16 tracks that feature over 17 singers, including Jody Ashworth (The Trans Siberian Orchestra, which was original formed by members of the aforementioned Savatage), Alaine Kashian (Broadway’s Cats) and Swedish metal phenom Chris Laney as the wonderfully wicked Brown Jenkin. That not enough musical street cred for you? Well, how about this, the album features 14 musicians, including Bruce Kulick (former KISS guitarist) and Douglas Blair Lucek (guitarist for W.A.S.P.). Yes, this album has links to both Savatage and W.A.S.P. Oh, you know I was a happy metalhead to learn that.

So yeah, this is not just your brother throwing something together in his backyard. Over the next three days, we’ll walk through this masterpiece, song by song. Enjoy, and let me know what you think in the comments.

1.The Confession/Arkham Overture

Our adventure begins with Frank Elwood taking confession with Father Inwanicki, setting up that our story will be told in the form of flashbacks. The intro establishes the overall feel for rest of the production, casting Arkham as a place of darkness and mounting dread, while introducing us to some musical riffs that will repeat themselves throughout.

5 stars

2. Dreams in the Witch House

The first real track is an ensemble blitz laying out the nature of the witch house and the contours of the story. Frank Elwood leads off, followed by the introduction of Walter Gilman himself. A chorus of characters serenades us, and then, like a canon shot, Alaine Kashian makes her first appearance as Keziah Mason, and you know you’ve got something special on your hands.

4.5 stars

3. Higher Fire: Breaking Me Down

We learn a little bit more about Gilman and how committed he is to the study of mathematics and the other dimensions that may surround us. Contrast that with Joseph Mazurewicz, who is equally committed to opposing the forces of evil he sees gathering in anticipation of Walpurgis Night. Gilman thinks that Mazurewicz is little more than an annoyance, part of the endless cacophony that is slowly driving him insane. But Gilman is starting to see that the very walls that surround him may hold the key to his studies into the strange geometries that make up the world.

3.5 stars

4. Bridge to The Stars

Gilman lays out the cosmic theory he is pursuing, as he attempts to find a way to pass between this dimension to the next. His professor and classmates are initially skeptical, but as Gilman lays out the theory, they start to believe. The chorus that follows reminds me of something out of Rent.

4 stars

5. The Nightmare

Even as Gilman’s theory comes closer to reality, the pressure of his work has begun to invade his dreams. In those nightmares, he walks the path of ancient lost cities of impossible geometries and sees unspeakable things. Gilman the scientist finds himself turning to his faith to protect him from the madness around him. As he calls upon his Lord, a new voice enters, that of Kaziah Mason.

3 stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): The Best Scenes in Horror Movie History, Part I

Today, I want to share with you some of my favorite horror movie scenes. I don’t know about you, but a good horror scene makes me positively giddy. Like, laugh out loud, smile like a madman, giddy. Am I the only one? No? Yes? Anyway, here we go. Let me know your favorites in the comments.

Oh, and P.S., in the tradition of all great horror, this post will have a sequel. Come back tomorrow for Part II, where I reveal my favorite horror scene of all time.

Suspiria — A Beautiful Death

From the finest Italian horror movie ever made comes this gem. Occurring about five minutes into the film, it sets the scene for what’s coming.

Insidious — Tiptoe Through the Tulips

This scene is everything that quiet horror should be. An ordinary day, a record player (always creepy), no reason to think anything is going to happen. But if you are watching, you’ll spy something out of place early on in the scene. I love this scene, and I get chills every time I watch it.

The Shining — Come Play With Us

This one is almost cheating, but man is it good.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night — The Record Scene

Another scene involving a record player, but very different. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is one of the most visually stunning horror films ever shot, and this scene might be its most beautiful.

Hellraiser — Demons to Some, Angels to Others

The best scene in one of the best horror movies ever made, here we meet the Cenobites in all their glory. I’ll always believe that this scene and our desire to see more, learn more, and know more about the Cenobites spawned the countless Hellraiser sequels. After all, they have such sights to show us.

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): Songs about Serial Killers

Murder ballads have always been a thing. We’ve always been obsessed by the monsters that walk among us, not long in tooth and claw like the beasts in a fairy tale, but all the more terrifying. Because they are real, and they exist, and any of us could be their victims. Is it any surprise that these beasts would inspire stories? Movies? And yes, songs? Here are some of the best murder ballads about serial killers.

John Wayne Gacy by Sufjan Stevens

It’s weird to say you have a “favorite” serial killer, but Gacy is mine. It’s the clown thing, which is so insanely creepy as to defy being real.

Possum Kingdom by The Toadies

You may not know this is a song about a serial killer, but it is. Listen to the lyrics.

Black River Killer by Blitzen Trapper

A murder ballad in the old school style, Black River Killer tells quite the tale.

What’s He Building by Tom Waits

This song is not actually about a serial killer…or is it? The paranoia of the narrator is creepy enough, but maybe not as creepy as the goings on of the person he is watching.

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): Horror Pet Peeves

Few genres call for the audience to suspend its disbelief more often than horror. Some of this is understandable–we’re dealing with the supernatural, after all. But some of them are just lazy, and they happen so often that they’ve become standard fare in horror parody’s. The car that won’t start, the heroine who runs up the stairs instead of out the front door, the amorous couple who insists on getting frisky in the abandoned field/house/road/cemetery/amusement park/slaughterhouse…you get the picture.

Here are three of my personal horror pet peeves. Let me know yours in the comments.

  1. The people who refuse to react properly to a paranormal event.

This one happens all the time. Something really crazy weird happens, the scene or chapter ends, and then the next chapter opens with the characters just going on about their business. Maybe they mention it in passing, maybe they talk about that really weird thing that happened, but they never react the way normal people would. Take any haunted house movie. How many of you would stay after even one of the creepy things in Insidious or Sinister or The Conjuring? Some ghost lures me into the basement and claps next to my head, I’m out, and I don’t care if I have to declare bankruptcy and live in my parents’ house for the rest of my life. A close corollary to this is the people who don’t call the police when they obviously should.

2. The people in a zombie movie that don’t kill every zombie they see.

You’re living in a zombie infested wasteland. There’s not going to be a cure, but you’ve got a pretty good setup in the local prison. But for some reason, you don’t kill the zombies gathered at the fence. You don’t kill the random zombies you see wondering down the roads when you go out on a run. You just leave them. Cause…why? This thing ain’t ending. So why not kill every single zombie you see? It might take a while, but eventually you and your group are going to at least thin out the herd a little bit. And hey, every zombie you kill is one less zombie that might kill you. So get to killing zombies. If we can wipe out the wolf and the buffalo, we can wipe out the undead.

3. The people who never listen to their significant others.

Don’t know why, but this one I especially hate. I read a book once where a husband and wife moved into a haunted house. Each chapter was told from one of their perspectives. Crazy things were happening to both of them. They didn’t tell each other at first (which also annoys me), but worse than that, when one would open up about some strange thing that was happening, the other would act like they must be going crazy. This happened again and again and again until finally I got so sick of it I stopped reading. You can make this trope work–if it’s only one of them hearing noises or seeing ghosts and that one happened to have had some mental breakdown in the past. But otherwise, spare me.

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): A Dark Song and 1st Summoning


What would you do to have one last moment with the ones you love and have lost? What would you give up? Would you risk your life? Would you risk your soul? That’s the question at the heart of A Dark Song.

A Dark Song investigates a paranormal subject that has always interested me but I’ve never seen a movie tackle—just how dang hard it is to pull off a magical ritual. Forget what you’ve seen in the films, the ancient mystics made it more or less impossible to actually complete one of these things. The Grand Grimoire, written by Satan himself some say, contains a ritual that takes some six to eighteen months and involves privations that would make a masochist blush. If you ever wondered  why more people aren’t walking around casting spells—other than the, you know, fact magic isn’t real—the difficulty involved is a place to start.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because that’s the bulk of A Dark Song. A women rents a house in the wilds of Wales so that she can lock herself inside with her mystical guide and embark on a quest to complete a magical rite–this one contained in the real grimoire The Book of Abramelin. It will take months, and during that time they will be stuck together. You can imagine how well that’s going to go. The ritual may or may not be working, but will they kill each other before we find out?

I very much enjoyed this movie, more so than I think most people would. (Hat tip to the names of our two main characters, Solomon and Sophia, both of which have esoteric significance.). It’s the definition of slow horror. Towards the end, it goes a little wacky in a Silent Hill kind of way, but that doesn’t take away too much from the rest of the film. I’ll give this movie Four Stars, well aware that many of you will find that rating inflated. But if you’ve ever wondered what this sort of ritual involves, this movie is for you.

4 Stars

There are few movies that have had more of a obvious impact on the horror genre than The Blair Witch Project. After its release, found footage became so prevalent as to be cliche, and there was a disco-level backlash against it in the years that followed. But it’s still around, and while big budget horror has gone back to a more traditional format, independent horror continues to rely heavily on the technique. So we come to 1st Summoning.

1st Summoning follows the Blair Witch setup all most too closely. Four amateur filmmakers strike off to a small town in the mountains of Arkansas to investigate a local legend. The story goes that an abandoned warehouse is the site of occult practices going back decades. But as they investigate, they discover that there may be more to the legend than they first believed, and that all of their immortal souls are in danger.

The Blair Witch comparisons are impossible to ignore in this movie. Whether it’s traipsing through the woods, discovering occult items that shouldn’t be there, or just filming when no one else would film, 1st Summoning hasn’t strayed far from the formula. But the movie also suffers from the comparison. The acting is not as good, and at times it’s downright bad. The sound is terrible. Often it’s impossible to make out what anyone is saying. Not that you always want to. The dialogue often feels false and forced. Whereas Blair Witch relied on spontaneous, natural dialogue to advance what was a bare-bones plot, 1st Summoning has a much more complicated story to tell. And in doing so, it overreaches.

Which is not to say that the movie has no redeeming qualities. It has some legitimately creepy moments. When one of our filmmakers investigates a church at night, the tension is real. Right up to the point where it takes it one step too far.

1st Summoning is not a bad movie if you’re looking for something to watch on a October evening. Just don’t expect too much you haven’t seen before, and seen done better.

2.5 Stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): The Horror of Remakes


I have a confession to make—Dawn of the Dead (2004) is one of my favorite horror movies. Seriously, I must have seen it a hundred times. I own the extended DVD version. Every zombie movie has that sequence where the rising begins, but no movie has done it better than Dawn of the Dead. I believe the first 20 or so minutes are the finest example of zombie horror ever put to celluloid. And yes, I like it better than the original.

That’s blasphemy to come folks, and I get it. One of my other favorite horror movies is the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. I saw the remake. It did a few things well—the microsleep bits were neat. But the rest of it was terrible. The makeup, while more realistic, lost so much in the translation. The acting was wooden, the is-he-really-bad element, silly.

But here’s the thing (and this is where I’m going with all this), a bad remake doesn’t cheapen the original. In fact, if anything, it makes one appreciate all the things the original did right. And a good remake can become a classic film in its own right.

And that’s why I find it impossible to get upset with the remake bonanza that we see going on in Hollywood these days. Do I wish studios would put more money behind daring, innovative, and original productions (hello At the Mountains of Madness)? Sure. I’d also like to be on the New York Times bestseller list, but that ain’t happening anytime soon either. So when I hear that they are remaking a classic like Suspiria, I get excited, even if the final product doesn’t necessarily live up to the original.

I guess I’m saying give remakes a chance. And to get you started, here are a few of my favorites.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

The Thing (1982)

The Ring (2002)

The Fly (1986)

Evil Dead (2013)

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): Songs about Vampires

Of all the classic horror monsters, I’ve got to think that vampires are the most popular. They’re sexy, they live for ever, they sparkle in the sunlight, what more could you want, right? So maybe it’s not surprising that they have inspired a number of popular songs. Here are some of the best.

“If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell is the greatest working song smith today not named Bob Dylan, and it’s little surprise that he’d take the notion of vampires and turn it into a ballad that can strike you at the core of your being. Lots of people write great songs about falling in love, but great songs about what it’s like to be in a relationship with the love of your life are few and far between.

“Fresh Blood” by Eels

Less romantic but more traditionally vampiric, “Fresh Blood” is one of those songs that will have you howling at the moon. Wait…

Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus

If you don’t know Bauhaus, you are missing out. Now’s your chance to get to know them.

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): Joe Bob Briggs and the Last Drive-In

If you love horror and you came of age in the 90s, there’s little doubt that you felt the influence of TNT’s Monstervision. It was a different time back then. If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to Blockbuster, and heaven forbid if you were late returning the VHS tape or if you didn’t rewind it. The selection was small. You couldn’t watch anything you wanted at any time. And if you had a question about a movie, good luck getting it answered. I know, the dark ages.

Monstervision was a revelation. Here was a show often highlighting classic B-horror movies we’d never even heard of, much less seen. And to top it off, we had Joe Bob Briggs who would appear during breaks in the middle of the movie to explain what was going on and maybe share some trivia. I can honestly say that my love of “bad” horror began with Monstervision and never let up.

With the end of the 90s came the end of Monstervision, but people didn’t forget. And when Shudder announced a Joe Bob Briggs horror marathon called the Last Drive-in, I am sure even they were surprised at the response. What was supposed to be a special became a series, with Season 3 due to premier next year. But for those of you who somehow missed out on this cultural phenomenon, what better time to catch up?

The films run the gamut from the almost unwatchable but bizarrely classic Bloodsucking Freaks to the new-classic A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. And all of them come with Joe Bob’s unique blend of comedy, criticism, and trivia.

Whether you’ve never heard of Joe Bob or you’ve seen everything he’s done, this show alone is reason enough to subscribe to Shudder. Brett says check it out.

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): Short Stories for Short Attention Spans

As the big day approaches there are some of you–yeah, I’m looking at you–who still haven’t done anything to celebrate. And while it’s still possible for you to catch a movie or two, time is running short for any literary outings. But fear not! Well, do fear, but only in the Halloween way. I digress. Some of the best horror fiction comes in the short story form. Here are five short stories that are guaranteed to satisfy your need for some thrills and chills this season.

  1. Hot Tub by Hal Bodner: From the anthology Hell Comes to Hollywood II: Twenty-Two More Tales of Tinseltown Terror, this quirky tale is also the most recent on the list. Hal Bodner is the master at comedy-horror and his talents are on full display in “Hot Tub.” Do whatever you need to to track down this gem.
  2. Mourning House by Ronald Malfi: Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. I talk about this one all the time. But I can’t help it. I love it. A haunted house story to reinvigorate haunted house stories, Malfi is a master and this is a wonderful introduction to his work. Hard to find these days, but do whatever it takes to track it down.
  3. The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood: A true classic, I was shamefully unaware of this story until very recently, and I put it on the top of my Halloween reading list a few years ago. Magic, unnerving, spooky, “The Wendigo” holds up amazingly well despite being over a hundred years old. Available for free at the link above, I would advise buying the audiobook narrated by Felbrigg Napoleon Herriot. And yes, it’s every bit as good as that name would suggest. Listen to it, and then you too can say that you have seen the Wendigo.
  4. The Statement of Randolph Carter by H.P. Lovecraft: I could have put a dozen or more of Lovecraft’s stories in this space, but I wanted to share with you the one that first hooked me on his writing, and my sentimental favorite of his ever since. There is a purity to this story–of horror, of plot, of the final haunting words–that make it one of Lovecraft’s most evocative stories. Check it out, and then let me know your favorite.
  5. The Yellow Sign by Robert W. Chambers: The story that, as part of a quartet of works mentioning that enigmatic work, The King in Yellow, introduced us all to a world of madness and insanity that continues to inspire artists of every stripe. Read it, but beware the yellow sign!

And a bonus: Nine Yards of Other Cloth by Manly Wade Wellman: The best story by a legend of horror that few know, this story is as melodic as a song and as haunting as the voice of a long lost lover. It introduced me to John the Balladeer and Wellman. Now it’s your turn.

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): The Best Opening Lines in Horror

A great first line can make a book, and the inability to come up with one has stopped more than a few writers from every getting on with the rest of the story. Here, I present to you some of my favorites (and some of them are more like first paragraphs). Leave yours in the comments.

I am a watchdog. My name is Snuff. — A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

So intent was Frank upon solving the puzzle of Lemarchand’s box that he didn’t hear the great bell begin to ring. — The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. — Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Solving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt. If you already happen to know the awful secret behind the universe, feel free to skip ahead. — John Dies at the End by David Wong.

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back. — I am Legend by Richard Matheson

Don’t call me Abraham: call me Abe. — The Fisherman  by John Langan

Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. — Carrie by Stephen King

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around the sinister monoliths on uninhabited islands. But the true epicure in the terrible, to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous. — The Picture in the House by H.P. Lovecraft

A considerable number of hunting parties were out that year without finding so much as a fresh trail; for the moose were uncommonly shy, and the various Nimrods returned to the bosoms of their respective families with the best excuses the facts of their imaginations could suggest. — The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood

You could argue–as I have more than enough times, as part of my Film History lecture–that, no matter its actual narrative content, every movie is a ghost story. — Experimental Film by Gemma Files

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone. — The Haunting of Hill House  by Shirley Jackson

This is not for you. — House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

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31 Days of Halloween (2020): Best Lovecraftian Movies

Lovecraft has inspired artists for generations, but he’s yet to inspire any truly great films. Well, that’s not entirely true. Sure, there are no big budget blockbusters dedicated to Cthulhu, but if you know where to look, there are some real gems. Here, I’ve brought together four you may or may not have heard of.


OK, you almost certainly have heard about this one. Stuart Gordon’s Reanimator remains the best known, most beloved of the movies inspired by the old gentleman of Providence. More funny than it is scary and with iconic performances by Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting on?

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The Call of Cthulhu

It’s crazy to think that the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society started off because some guys who loved Lovecraft got together on a whim and started acting out his stories. One of their first great productions was a 1920s style silent version of Lovecraft’s most famous work, and it is great. Even if Hollywood did try, the probably wouldn’t make a better version of Call than this.

The Whisperer in Darkness

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The HPLHS didn’t rest on their laurels, though. They continue to churn out high quality products inspired by Lovecraft at a dizzying pace. From radio programs to rock operas to underwear, they have it all. But The Whisperer in Darkness is one of their best. This time, the company went with a full-length feature film. Black and white and set in the thirties, the movie is faithful to the original story and well worth the watch.

Dreams in the Witch House

A few years ago, Showtime gathered some of the greatest horror directors of all time and gave them an hour to do whatever they wanted. The result were some of the greatest short(ish) horror films ever made. John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns and the incomparable Takashi Miike’s Imprint–so disturbing Showtime wouldn’t even run it–were my favorites. But one of the best films was done by Stuart Gordon–Dreams in the Witch House. Witch House is not the best of Lovecraft’s work, but the film version changed my perspective on the underappreciated story. Now, it’s nothing compared to the epic rock opera put out by HPLHS, but it’s a good place to start.

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