31 Days of Halloween (2018): Songs of Horror

Throughout this October, I’ll be using Fridays to share some horror-themed music for your Halloween enjoyment. Today I have two offerings. The first is a bit of spoken word creepiness by the inestimable Tom Waits, “What’s He Building.” Waits gravelly voice combined with unsettling sound effects and the endless repetition of the question What’s he building in there? will begin to make you question your sanity.

Our second offering today is by an artist who has dedicated himself to creating just this kind of music–Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The almost operatic, melodramatic “Song of Joy” hearkens back to the murder ballads of yore, when singing about murder and mayhem was something good Christian folk enjoyed doing. The ultimate question? Is the man telling us this tale actually the murderer himself? And when that narrator says “I see sir that I have your attention,” he does, oh he does.



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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Experimental Film

25867895I had been circling Gemma Files’ Experimental Film for a while before finally picking it up. I’m not sure what stayed my hand, but I think it was something in the synopsis that made me wary. Before I go on, here’s that (very long) synopsis for your perusal.

Fired at almost the same time as her son Clark’s Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis, former film critic turned teacher Lois Cairns is caught in a depressive downward spiral, convinced she’s a failure who’s spent half her adult life writing about other people’s dreams without ever seeing any of her own come true. One night Lois attends a program of experimental film and emerges convinced she’s seen something no one else has—a sampled piece of silver nitrate silent film footage whose existence might prove that an eccentric early 20th-century socialite who disappeared under mysterious circumstances was also one of Canada’s first female movie-makers. Though it raises her spirits and revitalizes her creatively, Lois’s headlong quest to discover the truth about Mrs. A. Macalla Whitcomb almost immediately begins to send her much further than she ever wanted to go, revealing increasingly troubling links between her subject’s life and her own. Slowly but surely, the malign influence of Mrs Whitcomb’s muse begins to creep into every aspect of Lois’s life, even placing her son in danger. But how can one increasingly ill and unstable woman possibly hope to defeat a threat that’s half long-lost folklore, half cinematically framed hallucination—an existential nightmare made physical, projected off the screen and into real life?

It might be that the synopsis is so darn long. It might be that it puts the emphasis on Lois as a mom, or that it seems to indicate that a large part of the central conflict in the story will be protecting a child, neither of which appeal to me. Whatever the case, I put Experimental Films aside again and again, only to come back to it because there was something intriguing about it that I couldn’t quite quit. I like the idea of haunted film. The ancients thought mirrors were a window to another world. And what is a film but a dim reflection of reality, capturing images of the long dead, presenting worlds unknown and otherwise unknowable? And the film in this book is an old one, very old, locked on silver nitrate film, a medium so flammable that it cost many a life in the early days of the cinema. So what the heck, I thought. Why not give it a shot?

I’m certainly glad I did.

First of all, it turns out my initial concerns were wholly unfounded. Lois is much more than a mom. Her domestic situation plays a role in the book and is, at times, one of the things that motivates her, but it is largely in the background. Lois is an independent woman pursuing a mystery that is obscure and potentially world-changing all at once. On the trail of a film from the earliest days of movie-making that seems to portray a forgotten Wendish god (obscurity squared you might say), Lois finds herself locked in a struggle of Lovecraftian proportions.

Compellingly readable and filled with interesting tidbits about movie culture, this winding tale will keep you on the edge of your seat from the opening title to the final credits. Definitely recommended.

P.S. If you enjoyed this book, check out Cigarette Burns, one of my favorite entries from the excellent Masters of Horror series.

4 Stars

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): A Dark Song

01What 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

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31 Days of Halloween (2018): Nights in the Lonesome October

Welcome to October. If you’re a fan of horror, this is the month to try new things and discover new worlds. Every year, I read Night in the Lonesome October, the finest Halloween themed book ever written. Truly, no fan of Halloween, Horror, or H.P. Lovecraft should live life without reading this book. But I know some of you are looking for something new and different. So without further ado, here are some books I’ve read in the last year that I think you should consider checking out this October. In no particular order…


1. The Fisherman by John Langan. One of the best books I have read in years, The Fisherman is a powerhouse of a novel that creates one of the most amazing and original Lovecraftian worlds you’ll ever find.



230192942. Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. Head Full of Ghosts is not only scary, it is a book that will make you think. It is a book that will stick with you for days and weeks. Tremblay’s fiction isn’t for everyone, but whatever you may think of his other books, this novel is one to read.


51ok2bmublil-_sx311_bo1204203200_3. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaVelle. Powerful, genre-redefining, a page-turner. All these describe The Ballad of Black Tom. Re-imagining Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” in a way that turns some of the more troubling racial aspects of the old master on its head, The Ballad of Black Tom is a true must read.

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Welcome to 31 Days of Halloween

You can feel it in the air. You can see it all around. The cool, crisp cut of the wind. The dying leaves. Halloween is coming.

I admit I’m not the most attentive web master in the world. In between making a living and writing fiction, there’s not much time for this sort of thing. But then October comes, and what better time to share my love of all things horrific with all of you. We’ll be reviewing movies and books, experiencing songs with a Halloween connection, and exploring the wider horror world. So come with me, my friends, and let us take a trip into the dark, the mysterious, and the macabre. Just don’t lose yourself in the night.

‘Tis the night – the night
Of the grave’s delight,
And the warlocks are at their play;
Ye think that without
The wild winds shout,
But no, it is they – it is they.

– Arthur Cleveland Coxe


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The Night of Walpurgis is Upon Us

The Site That Should Not Be

The veils between the worlds may be at their thinnest on Samhain, but the darkest night of the year is now upon us. Walpurgis Night. The Eve of Beltane. The Night of the Witches, when those dark beings meet on the Brocken mountain and hold revels with their gods.  Bar the door and shutter your windows upon this May Eve.  For tonight, the darkness takes shape.

Each night, the people of Arkham cowered behind their flimsy wooden doors, terrified of what lurked beyond. But it was the the Beltane Eve, the night of Walpurgis, that the old men of Arkham still speak of in whispered words and phrases. They say that the hills burned with an unnatural glow that night, that satanic psalms floated down to the town below, as creatures of darkness danced and gibbered in the moonlight.

Read more in my book, That Which Should Not Be.

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Let’s Talk A Head Full of Ghosts

Lately, I’ve written a number of straight reviews. I’m bored with that, so for A Head Full of Ghosts, let’s do something different. Spoilers galore, by the way, so if you haven’t read the book, you might want to do that first.

23019294It took me a while to read Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts. When I picked it up the first time, I got to Chapter Two—the first blog post—and put it right back down. Recently, I tried again, and I’m glad I did. It’s not a perfect book. The treatment of religion borders on cliché, and the blog posts are full of the kind of psycho-babble social commentary you might find on your least favorite Twitter feed, but these are minor quibbles. Head Full of Ghosts is a page-turner that makes you think and keeps you guessing. With that in mind, I’ve posed some questions below with my take on the answers. Looking forward to your comments. And as I said, spoilers. SPOILERS. (4.5 stars, by the way.)


I said, spoilers!

  1. Is Merry really the one possessed?

I’ll start here, just because it’s the first thing you wonder after you close the book, based on the last couple of pages. I also feel quite confident in saying that the answer is no. Tremblay’s denouement is a nice trick, just like the one at the end of Inception (I also feel quite confident in saying that two seconds after the fade to black in that movie the top falls over, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he no longer cares what is real and what isn’t because he has the life he wants. It’s deep, man, and everyone missed it trying to decide what the answer was to the question that didn’t matter. But I digress.) It’s just a trick, though. The coffee guy all but says the heat is broken. It’s not Merry’s demon suddenly stealing all the heat. And other than the last few pages, I can think of no other evidence in the book for Merry’s possession. So let’s let this one go.

  1. Was the father planning on murdering the family?

I also feel pretty confident in saying that the answer here is no. As Merry suggests, her father was intending on cleaning the pewter cross, something that potassium cyanide is quite good at. If I’m right about that, then Marjorie is simply manipulating Merry into helping her murder the family she now hates while sparing the sister that she still loves. It’s possible that in Marjorie’s paranoia she also thinks her father is trying to kill them all, but I don’t buy the idea that she doesn’t know the consequences of her own actions. She’s made a decisive choice to end things. The exorcism didn’t work to help her and in the process she lost whatever trust and affection she had left for her mother and father. This also has the side-benefit of a nice tie in between Merry and what I assume is her namesake—Merricat Blackwood from We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Now, it’s possible I am wrong here. The emails between the crazy church leader and the father certainly indicate a plan for mass suicide. Moreover, if the father were simply buying the poison to clean the cross, it’s unclear why it would be so difficult for the police to track the purchase. More ambiguity from Tremblay and his unreliable narrator.

  1. What is really wrong with Marjorie?

Some might think this is the central question of the book. I’m not convinced. To a large extent, it doesn’t matter what’s wrong with Marjorie. The book is really about the breakdown of a family, a scathing critique of reality TV culture, and an analysis of how desperation and greed can combine to create a horror far more terrifying than the supernatural.

But that doesn’t stop me from wondering what is going on with Marjorie.

Every time I think Tremblay is signaling that there is no demon and that Marjorie isn’t possessed, something happens to change my mind. Let’s get one thing clear from the start—she’s not faking it. The most likely explanation—and I’m no psychologist so don’t @ me bro—is that she is suffering from schizophrenia with associated paranoid delusions. Marjorie’s symptoms line up perfectly with that diagnosis, and the onset in early adulthood fits with the disease. The voices, the belief that thoughts and experiences are inserted into the mind by others, a marked change in personality, etc., etc., would seem to make the diagnosis pretty straightforward. Which leads me to my next question…

  1. Why, exactly, are we performing an exorcism?

This relates to my earlier comment about the way religion is treated in the book. There’s an implication at some point in the story that the local priest is somehow benefiting from the television show which presumably would not exist without the exorcism itself. But it’s never fleshed out and I don’t find it particularly believable. Moreover, a priest can’t just decide to do an exorcism. The bishop has to approve. This is glossed over in the book and there’s a chapter where a doctor, Dr. Navidson in a hat-tip to House of Leaves, examines Marjorie in order to provide evidence supporting the exorcism. He doesn’t find a whole lot. All we really have is Marjorie turning into a chatty Cathy, revealing evidence that she easily could have garnered from the internet. Compare this to The Exorcist, where the demon-possessed victim levitates, speaks Latin and Greek, reads the priest’s mind, and he still isn’t convinced she’s possessed. The book is probably based on the case of Anneliese Michel, but even there they had far more evidence to go on than we have here.

  1. Is this book really just about reality television and what it says about our culture?

Criticisms of how the book handles religion aside, it’s spot on in the way it addresses our reality TV culture. Just think about what is going on here—we have a girl, a mere child, suffering a severe mental breakdown to the point of harming herself and threatening her family and instead of giving her medical treatment the mom and dad have agreed to film the whole thing with an entertainment company agreeing to go along with it. And of course, it’s a huge hit. The central line in the book by my reckoning is when a now adult Merry is asked by the author writing her story how she can watch horror movies about exorcisms, given that they are more horrific than what actually happened to her. She replies, “What does that say about you or anyone else that my sister’s nationally televised psychotic break and descent into schizophrenia wasn’t horrific enough?”

Now you may be saying—it’s just a book. It’s not real. Bless you if you think it couldn’t be real, though. If you think we wouldn’t watch. And bless you if there’s not a part of you, buried deep back there in your brain, that doesn’t wish you could watch this very reality television show, that doesn’t wish it were real after all.

That’s the true horror, my friend.

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Review: The Fisherman by John Langan

71l6banbv1lIt’s a rare thing, a book that sticks with you. That makes you think days after you’ve turned the last page, that takes you down a path to somewhere dark and dangerous and mysterious and amazing all at once. The Fisherman by John Langan is such a book.

The synopsis:

In upstate New York, in the woods around Woodstock, Dutchman’s Creek flows out of the Ashokan Reservoir. Steep-banked, fast-moving, it offers the promise of fine fishing, and of something more, a possibility too fantastic to be true. When Abe and Dan, two widowers who have found solace in each other’s company and a shared passion for fishing, hear rumors of the Creek, and what might be found there, the remedy to both their losses, they dismiss it as just another fish story. Soon, though, the men find themselves drawn into a tale as deep and old as the Reservoir. It’s a tale of dark pacts, of long-buried secrets, and of a mysterious figure known as Der Fisher: the Fisherman. It will bring Abe and Dan face to face with all that they have lost, and with the price they must pay to regain it.

The Fisherman is a story within a story within a story. Don’t think of an onion so much as House of Leaves, a book whose impact on me seems only to increase with distance. It’s a bad pun, but The Fisherman reels you in, and once you are hooked, you won’t be able to put it down. I know I’m not giving you much to go on here. In fact, you could say I’m being intentionally vague. It’s not as if there are spoilers that will ruin the book for you, but I went into it with no real knowledge of what I was getting, and I don’t want to ruin that for you.

In short, The Fisherman is the best modern Lovecraftian book I’ve read, but it is also completely accessible to people who’ve never heard of Lovecraft. Langan is a masterful writer, and I can’t wait to experience more of his magic.

5 Stars

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Review: Night Ocean by Paul La Farge

61i42kqgs3l-_sx328_bo1204203200_I hate three star reviews, the critic’s version of a “meh.” When you pour your heart and soul into writing a book, you hope to inspire something. Preferably joy, horror, love, etc., depending on the genre. If not that, loathing works. A one star review means someone was passionate about your book.  I’m as likely to buy a novel on the basis of a well-written one star review as I am a similarly passionate five star review. But three stars? Meh.

As much as I hate to say it, The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge falls squarely in that three star range for me. It shouldn’t have been this way.

The Night Ocean is part of the new hotness that is re-imagining or re-purposing Lovecraft with an ironic twist that would have horrified the late master of the unseen forces that bend men’s fates.  The Ballad of Black Tomwhich I loved, does this with racism. Lovecraft Countrycurrently on my reading list, does the same. The Night Ocean tackles the dubious subject of Lovecraft’s sexuality. This, I was not expecting. I was also skeptical, and remain so, that this is a subject that’s all that interesting. We know that Lovecraft was married. His wife Sonia Greene called him “an adequately excellent lover.” (Talk about a three star review). But other than that, Lovecraft is thought of as decidedly a-sexual, too isolated from humanity to enjoy love or its attendant physical pursuits.

The Night Ocean posits that Lovecraft may have been gay and may have had an illicit affair with a young protege, Robert Barlow, who authored a short story of the same name as our novel. The husband of our protagonist sets off to discover the truth, and in doing so gets himself tangled in a story of mystery and deceit that takes the entire novel to unravel.

Now you may be asking yourself, where’s the horror? And that would be precisely the problem. I stumbled upon The Night Ocean while reading an article entitled “8 Lovecraftian Tales for Those Who Don’t Want to Read Lovecraft which I was pleasantly surprised to see included That Which Should Not BeSince the article’s author clearly has good taste, I decided to pick up some of the other books on the list as well. The Night Ocean was one of them.

The Night Ocean starts off well, promising an almost House of Leavesstyle story within a story, where nothing is ever quite what it seems and the author may not be completely reliable. A couple biographies later and the book was over, without anything all that Lovecraftian ever having happened.

I think it was my expectations that ruined it for me. The book is well written, with all the literary fiction quality one would expect from a book stamped with the “A novel” disclaimer. But it’s not horror. Not at all. So for me, it was just…meh.

3 Stars


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Review: The Ballad of Black Tom

51ok2bmublil-_sx311_bo1204203200_Although some in the horror community struggle to admit it, Lovecraft, for all his brilliance, was also a racist. I’ve written about it before on this site, and it’s a side of the man we should not shy away from. Victor LaVelle has done more than confront it; he’s applied his considerable talent to turn one of Lovecraft’s most troubling–and not in a good way–stories into something far more compelling.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling of Lovecraft’s story, “The Horror at Red Hook.” The story derives directly from the xenophobia that Lovecraft’s time in New York City only served to intensify. It’s considered one of Lovecraft’s worst stories (even Lovecraft panned it), and one might think it a strange choice for basing a modern retelling. But therein lies LaVelle’s genius. He takes a story born in racial hatred and turns it on its head. The Synopsis:

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn’t there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father’s head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

If you’ve read The Horror at Red Hook, you know the basic story. Detective Malone plays a role here, but he is not the central character. Neither is Robert Suydam. For it is Tester, despised because of his race, who ultimately has the power to raise the Old Ones. But more importantly, it is he who understands them, understands what is it is to be an outcast, and understands the desire to form a new world. He could stop them, too, but after living a life of the worst kind of abuse at the hands of a society that hates him, will he bother?

There is so much to enjoy about The Ballad of Black Tom that I scare believe I could do it justice. For all the greatness of Lovecraft, it’s a reminder of what he could have accomplished if he’d been able to overcome his worst tendencies.

4 stars

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The Ritual

p14607106_p_v8_abHorror is having its [latest] moment, and the availability of mediums like Amazon and Netflix mean that horror movies which might have disappeared into straight-to-video oblivion ten years ago have a chance to shine today. But The Ritual is a coup for Netflix. This is a movie good enough to go to theaters, and it is can’t miss for anyone with a Netflix account.

Four friends from University strike off into the Scandinavian hinterland to honor their fifth member, killed in a robbery gone wrong. But at least two of the crew aren’t the athletic specimens they once were, and after an accident gives one a bum knee, they decide to take a shortcut through an uncharted forest. Things get bad when they discover the corpse of a large animal hanging from a tree–gutted–and they get worse when they find an ancient idol in a forgotten farmstead. Now something is hunting them, and what started as a camping trip soon becomes a fight for survival.

The Ritual is based on the novel of the same name by Adam Nevill. I enjoyed that book quite a bit, but it was flawed, particularly in its second half. In adapting Nevill’s book, the filmmakers have taken what made the novel great and fixed its shortcomings. And the creature design is inspired. The beast stays just beyond the frame for most of the movie, but the usual disappointment when the monster is revealed is completely absent here. It’s too good for just one movie, and I hope for more exploration of its mythology in the future.

The Ritual is an unmitigated success. Everyone involved should be proud.

4.0 Stars

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Review: 1922

If you’re in the mood for a thoroughly depressing movie, 1922 is right up your alley. Stephen King is a genius, but his movies have been hit or miss. Still, if you think about it, 1922_282017_film29the adaptations of his novellas/short stories have been remarkably successful. Stand by MeShawshank, Children of the Corn, 1408, just to name a few. So I went into 1922 with a lot of optimism, particularly given that it is a Netflix special. Was I disappointed?

It’s complicated.

1922 is brilliant in so many ways. Beautifully shot. Wonderfully acted, with that slow burn build that the best horror movies have. Thomas Jane simply inhabits the lead character. There will be no awards for his performance, and that’s unfortunate, because he is brilliant. The screenplay is unendingly depressing, as we watch a farmer not only decide to kill his wife, but convince his son to help him carry it out. Things collapse from there, as the contagion that is murder spreads from the farm to the countryside and beyond. No one is spared.

1922 is a good movie. You won’t be bored. But there is something missing.  I can’t say exactly what it is, and I would be interested to know if anyone else sees it. Maybe it’s the inevitability of things, the sense that nothing good is going to happen and there is no way to avoid the doom that is coming.

Maybe that’s part of the movie’s charm. After all, there’s something to be said for creeping dread. Still, for me at least, it kept the film from taking that next step to brilliance.

Am I saying you shouldn’t see 1922? No, definitely do. But I might have something happy ready to watch after.

3.5 Stars

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Review: The Temple (2017)

After a brief hiatus we’re back, and with a review of the 2017 film, The Temple. Of all the ways to come back, this was probably not the best.

large_temple_posterThe Temple treads well-worn territory. Three young Americans head off to mysterious foreign lands (in this case, Japan) and are soon messing with things they don’t understand. After numerous warnings to leave well enough alone, they strike off to visit the forbidden temple where a bunch of people have died. When things get wonky, they end up spending the night. Bad idea. You know where this is going, and there isn’t going to be a twist.

It’s a movie you’ve seen a thousand times–and 993 of those times were better. The characters are woefully underdeveloped, and if you care about these people when they start to die, you are a better person than I. The usual J-horror tropes are present, particularly pale, scary children with haunted eyes and sharp teeth. An homage to an actual piece of Japanese folklore–the tricksy, shape-shifting fox–is a welcome addition, but not enough to save the film. Spend your time elsewhere.

2 of 5 Stars


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The Lonesome October

Dear reader,

I know, as of late, I have neglected you and this site. For that, my deepest apologies. My excuses are likely unsatisfying. Work has overwhelmed me, and I fear it won’t be getting better anytime soon. Recent professional developments also prevent me from continuing my yearly tradition of 31 Days of Halloween. Next year, I’ll do better.

This year I’ll be posting over the course of October, but mostly in the greatest hits vein. So if you see a post you’ve seen before, I apologize.

For now, below are two video reviews of my books, first for That Which Should Not Be and then He Who Walks in Shadow. If you are a fan of an author, know this–these are the kinds of things that keep us going. You may never  know the effect your kind words have on people, so keep it up. Until we meet next time…

From ghoulies and ghosties

And long-leggedy beasties

And things that go bump in the night,

Good Lord, deliver us!

That Which Should Not Be review:

He Who Walks in Shadow review:

Visit https://bugensbooks.com/ for more reviews.

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Walpurgisnacht Comes

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.

–“The Fiddle is the Devil’s Instrument” from The Fiddle is the Devil’s Instrument and Other Forbidden Knowledge


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