It’s not easy to categorize this book into one genre. It has historical fiction, horror and psychological thriller elements. The book begins with a couple, Michelle and Tom Cleveland, moving into their new home in South Africa. For a housewarming party, they play with a Ouija board. Soon after, strange things begin to happen to Michelle, and she realizes she and her husband are being haunted by a poltergeist.

The vengeful spirit is named Estelle, a young woman who died in the aftermath of the Second Boer War. Along with her, the house is also haunted by the shades of Estelle’s father, Pieter, a Boer farmer turned soldier, and Robert, a British officer. These two ghosts are not malicious, but all three are intertwined in tragic ways due to the war.

And this is where the historical fiction part comes in: much of the book is told in flashbacks, showing Estelle’s, Pieter’s, and Robert’s experiences in life. As someone who has only very slight knowledge of this period, these passages were fascinating to me, bringing a semi-forgotten time vividly to life.

And believe you me, the Second Boer War was brutal. Did you know that’s when the term “concentration camp” originated?  After pursuing a merciless “scorched earth” policy, the British sent their captives to camps, where disease and starvation were rampant.

The book spares no detail in describing the horrors of war and its after-effects. Some passages are so poignant and disturbing they are hard to read. It’s easy to see how Estelle’s spirit came to be so bitter and vengeful.

Meanwhile, in the modern day, Michelle works to piece together the story of the three ghosts. She comes to realize that Estelle has her reasons for choosing to haunt her and her husband, as Tom has dark secrets in his own past.

I won’t spoil how it all ends up. The best way I can say it is to say it’s a story full of horror and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a major theme in the story. Though, come to think on it, I think there are some things that shouldn’t be forgiven.

Yes, that’s right; I’m very sympathetic to many of ghost-Estelle’s arguments, demonic though she may be. I won’t say any more, just that I think the reader will have to decide for themselves whether certain characters can be forgiven for their actions.

Maybe this is a good time to bring up trigger warnings. I don’t always do those, just because it’s tough to know what may be upsetting to different people, but in this case, it’s not hard to guess. Pretty much every disturbing thing you can think of happens here. It’s a book about war, and war is a brutal business, and every kind of trauma is referenced here. This is not for the faint of heart, by any stretch. If you want to know more, email or DM me.

If you’re fascinated by history, as I am, then this will be an excellent introduction to the Boer War Era. I’ve been trying to learn more about the period, which is why this is the second Boer War-based novel I’ve read this year. (Curiously, that book was also about forgiveness.) It’s an unsparing, brutal take on it, that depicts the British Empire’s attempt to seize the resources of the Transvaal as a bloodthirsty conquest. While some low-ranking British soldiers and officers, such as Robert, are portrayed sympathetically, the overall picture of people like Lord Kitchener and other high-ranking officials is very harsh.

The whole thing feels very grim and depressing. Mindless violence and cruelty perpetrated for an empire that no longer exists. Once, while researching the Boer War, I came across a song about it by a singer named John Edmond. The song title and refrain is “What In The Hell Was It For?” This echoed in my head repeatedly reading this. It really is that dark, but it’s to the author’s credit that it feels so real and immediate.

As for the supernatural horror element, I liked how it mostly lurks in the background of the story, only to periodically explode in moments of intense terror. It’s used sparingly, but packs a punch when it needs to.

A few technical notes: first, the book is told in the present tense, which may be off-putting to some readers. It felt odd to me at first, but I got used to it. Second, on the Kindle version, there were a few places where the font-size changes abruptly. I think this is due to the smaller font for the footnotes spilling over into the main text. It may also be a function of my using a very old version of the app.

There were a handful of typos. But we indie authors are all used to that sort of thing and know how hard they are to get rid of, and this is a long book, which just makes it harder. It didn’t bother me overmuch.

The last thing is a stylistic point: the dialogue is not naturalistic. It felt to me more like lines from an opera than dialogue from a novel. Now, there are certainly many different ways of handling dialogue, none of which appeals to everyone. It’s just that at times, it seemed a little too “formal” to me, if that makes sense. However, that may not be everyone’s impression, so don’t let that put you off checking it out.

This is a really moving, poignant book, and it’s clear the author did a huge amount of research for the Boer War setting, and the supernatural elements linking it with the “modern” part of the story were ingenious. You have to be in the right frame of mind for it, but if you are, I recommend it.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is military sci-fi blended with horror. It has a bit of Starship Troopers, a bit of Doom, a bit of Aliens, and is altogether an intense experience. It’s a short story, only about a 20 minute read, but is it ever action-packed.

The main character is Lyn, a mercenary who is part of a team trying to evacuate colonists from the titular planet. The planet has come under attack by creatures known as “Clickers”. Demonic, sadistic entites that are also very difficult to kill, they leave death and devestation in their wake.

Lyn tries her best to rescue as many colonists as she can, but the fight is hopeless, and soon, becomes a struggle just to survive. Lyn does, but at a heavy price. And eventually, it becomes clear the Clickers are not her only enemy.

The book is fast-paced, dark, and brutal. There are no happy endings here; more of a grim kind of satisfaction. It’s creepy, violent, and dark. Everything a good sci-fi horror story should be, in other words.

If you described this book to me, I’d have said it sounded too clichéd. A mysterious monster killing people all over Whitechapel, and a private detective hired to track it down? It all sounds too much like a mashup of Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula for me.

But Lydia Schoch recommended it, and I trust Lydia. And my trust was vindicated, because this turned out to be a very fun Halloween season short story. It is very short, taking only about 20 minutes to read, but in that short space the author created a whole satisfying plot arc that largely makes sense. Well, almost. There was one thing that didn’t make sense to me. But I can’t get too much into it without spoiling the book. However, it was a minor plot element that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.

The Victorian atmosphere is well done and the characters are engaging. It’s true, it doesn’t break any new ground, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with a good, solid monster story competently told, and that’s what this is.

Dracula is about… oh, who am I kidding? You all know what Dracula is about. Even if you haven’t actually read it, you know the deal: vampire comes to England, mysterious things start happening to a couple of young women. One of them dies, and rises from the grave. Then her friend starts to have similar strange experiences. Eventually, her male friends, with the help of Doctor Van Helsing, realize she is being haunted by an undead monster.

That’s the story. I knew it long before I read the book, mostly because I’d seen the 1931 movie.

One thing I didn’t know was that the book was told as a series of letters among the characters. That was an interesting idea, and made the whole thing feel very immediate. Also, the movie minimizes the coolest scene in the book, the arrival of Dracula’s boat in England.

Now comes the part where I’m probably going to get into trouble: I don’t love the book. It is, in my opinion, just okay.

Part of this is not really anything intrinsic to the book. Dracula is iconic, and as such, most of the elements of it that must have seemed amazing at the time have now become clichés. Alas, there is just no way to read Dracula with the perspective of an 1890s Victorian reader.

But there are some books from the 1890s that still feel to me as fresh as if they were written yesterday. You know the book I mean, so I won’t rehash it again.

Dracula, I’m afraid, doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels dated. That’s not to say it’s bad, because it isn’t at all. It’s fine. More than fine, I suppose. It has become become iconic for some reason. What is that reason?

I’m privileged to know many talented writers and artists. One of the things we often talk about is whether art needs to have a meaning or not. The reason for this question is raised not so much by art, but by the field of art criticism, which follows all art but is never as substantial as art itself, like a mere shadow on a wall.

Is a work of fiction just a pure fragment of imagination? Or are there lessons about the real world that we can take away from fiction?

On the most obvious level, Dracula is about a vampire who comes to England. However, in the century-plus since its publication, critics have written all sorts of analyses of the meaning of Dracula. Dracula is “invasion literature.” Dracula is about tradition vs. modernity. Dracula is about Victorian sexual mores.

Is any of this remotely true? Or is it all a bunch of academic navel-gazing?

My feeling is, if you could ask Bram Stoker himself, he’d tell you Dracula was just a cool story about a vampire.

But then… Bram Stoker was a Victorian, and so it is reasonable to suspect that in the process of telling his cool vampire story, he included some elements of himself and the world he knew.

As an example, it is interesting to know that Stoker modeled the character of Dracula after Henry Irving, the most famous actor of the period. Stoker was Irving’s business manager, and it seems he both adored and feared the man. Indeed, he wanted Irving to play the part of Dracula on the stage, but Irving refused, perhaps believing that playing “modern” characters like Dracula (and Sherlock Holmes, BTW) was beneath him.

This is an interesting tidbit, and maybe it tells us something about Victorian society. Maybe the vampire legend’s enduring popularity can tell us other things about society.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe it is just a cool vampire story after all. Either way, though, don’t you want to stick around to find out? 🙂 As I did with the Headless Horseman legend last October, each weekend this month I’m going to take a look at some of the stories related to Dracula and see if there’s anything interesting to be discovered.

Dark Magic is a novella about two groups of magicians: the “Maestros of Magic” and “The Carnival of Conjurors.” The latter begins making a sensation with some truly spectacular performances that seem unbelievable to the Maestros, who investigate and eventually discover that the secret of the Conjurors is in fact real black magic.

What follows is a series of daring episodes of theatrical sabotage, as the Maestros try to thwart their rivals. It’s fast paced and exciting, although still with a few moments to catch your breath and learn something about the characters, all of whom are quite well-drawn, considering how short the book is.

If I have a quibble with the book, it’s that it seemed like the Maestros were a little too willing, too quickly, to jump to some rather dramatic conclusions about the Conjurors. Yes, they turn out to be correct, but even so, it seemed a tad rushed. 

That’s a minor point, though. Overall, this is a very fun story with an absolutely perfect ending. I half-guessed it before it was revealed, but even so, it worked quite well. I know I say this about a lot of things, but if you like Twilight Zone type stories, you’ll love this.

I like magic shows and supernatural mysteries, so in that regard, this book was perfect for me. There are a few ways in which it was not perfect for me, however:

  • I’ll try to say it without spoiling anything, but there are a few references to women meeting violent ends.  Nothing particularly graphic, but most readers know that I’m always uncomfortable with female victims as the hook for mystery stories. Give me Stephen Leacock’s “body of an elderly gentleman, upside down, but otherwise entirely dressed” as the victim and I’m much more comfortable. But again, I want to be clear this is not a criticism of the book, by any stretch.
  • One of the characters suffers from extreme arachnophobia, and this is a major plot point. I’m not quite at the “extreme” stage–I can look at a spider without screaming and running away–but I don’t like them. If the Thought Police ever took me to Room 101, there would certainly be spiders in place of rats. So, reading about them can be a little creepy, although I could really empathize with the character who feared them.
  • I also am mildly claustrophobic. Mostly, this relates to elevators and an irrational fear I have of being stuck in one. And once again, this book includes a scene with a claustrophobic character who is trapped for some time in a confined space. 
  • Finally, I know I have at least one reader who is not a fan of chainsaws, and there’s one critical scene involving a mishap with one of those. 

To be clear, I’m in no way objecting to these things being in the book. Rather, I’m complimenting the book, because it’s such a good story I kept reading despite these things, and found it to be quite a satisfying story overall. 

The book description says the author is familiar with the world of stage magic, and that certainly seems to be the case–the descriptions of the life of a touring magic show feel very authentic. 

This is a perfect read for the Halloween season–creepy, weird, and tinged with dark humor. 

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Lovecraft! Few names are as loaded as his. The weight it carries, the emotions it evokes–what power this strange, little-known-in-his-time pulp writer has assumed!

Most of the time, when I talk about Lovecraft on this blog, it’s to criticize him. And there’s a lot to criticize. I’ve written about this before. But Lovecraft has this way about him: just when you’re ready to dismiss him, you remember some piece of his work that’s so interesting you can’t just write him off altogether.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post: his 1935 short story “The Haunter of the Dark.”

“The Haunter of the Dark” tells the story of a young writer named Robert Blake who moves to Providence, Rhode Island. Blake is fascinated by the occult, and soon becomes obsessed with a huge church on a hill far across the city, that he is compelled to stare at for hours from the window of his apartment.

Eventually, he visits the church, where he finds the remains of a reporter who apparently died while investigating the activities of a mysterious religious order called “The Church of Starry Wisdom.” He also finds a strange object in the abandoned church, and immediately upon seeing it, feels an evil presence.

This evil presence–some manner of alien entity, left vague in classic Lovecraftian fashion–can move only in darkness. But when a thunderstorm knocks out power to the city one night, Blake feels sure he is marked for death by the creature that lives in the church tower.

It’s not a long story. It can easily be read in one sitting. And for the seasoned HPL veteran there’s not a lot of new ground here: there’s a legend haunted New England town, a weirdly antiquarian protagonist, a nameless alien horror–this is all familiar. But there are nonetheless some things I find noteworthy about this particular story.

The first is, I admit, purely subjective. “The Haunter of the Dark” is my favorite Lovecraft story. Can I point to anything to say that it’s clearly better than some of his other really good stories, like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Hound”? Not really. I could probably make an argument for why it’s better than many of his most famous stories, including “The Call of Cthulhu.” But nevertheless, this is purely a matter of personal taste.

Or is it?

Well… maybe there are some other, non-subjective reasons why I can say that “The Haunter of the Dark” is the apex of Lovecraftian horror. Or maybe not, and what I think is objective is just more subtly subjective. But there must be some reason why this story stands out to me above all the others, right?

Well, let’s dig into the evidence–but all the while, bearing in mind the guarded distrust of the narrator that is the hallmark of any Lovecraft tale. After all, “the papers have given the tangible details from a sceptical angle, leaving for others the drawing of the picture as Robert Blake saw it—or thought he saw it—or pretended to see it.”

That’s as good a place as any to start. So, who is Robert Blake?

In one sense, he’s a stereotypical Lovecraft protagonist. He’s an eccentric weirdo who lives alone and is fascinated by the bizarre and the esoteric, and has seemingly no life outside his dedication to these subjects. Almost everyone in Lovecraft-world is like this.

But there’s more to the story: Robert Blake is a surrogate for Robert Bloch, a correspondent of Lovecraft’s, to whom “The Haunter of the Dark” is dedicated.

All right, so who was Robert Bloch?

Well, eventually, he would go on to be a fairly popular horror writer himself. But in the 1930s, he was basically nobody; just a teenager who read Weird Tales magazine and had written fan mail to Lovecraft.

And Lovecraft wrote back. He encouraged the young Bloch in his own writing efforts, giving him advice and introducing him to other members of his literary circle. Lovecraft even gave Bloch permission to write a story in which a Lovecraft-surrogate was killed off. “The Haunter of the Dark” was HPL’s reciprocation of this gesture.

Now, of course in the 1930s, Lovecraft was not as well-known as he is today. But still, imagine what a thrill it must have been for teenager Robert Bloch to become so close (closeness being evaluated on a relative scale when it comes to Lovecraft) to someone he perceived as a great author.

“The Haunter of the Dark” is, among other things, a reader’s dream come true. What if your favorite author put you in one of their stories? Lovecraft even included Bloch’s actual address in Wisconsin! (Which today would be considered doxxing, but hey, it was a different time.)

Lovecraft often referenced his literary friends’ works in other stories as a sort of in-joke, but to write a whole story around someone who wasn’t really even a peer, but just a young fan, is pretty extraordinary.

But that’s not all that makes “Haunter of the Dark” special. In fact, usually fan service in fiction ends up being detrimental to the overall story, and to see why that is not the case here, we have to look at what Lovecraft did in designing the story’s antagonist. For this, Lovecraft plays on humanity’s most basic phobia: the fear of the dark.

Lovecraft rarely created rules for his monsters. He didn’t use vampires who only come out at night, werewolves who appear only when the moon is full, etc. Largely, this was because it was important to him that his alien monsters be utterly inscrutable to humans–beings whose motivations, if any, lay so outside our own domain as to be unfathomable.

And this is still true for the thing which haunts the deserted church on Federal Hill. But Lovecraft does give this monster one very basic, almost childishly obvious rule: it can’t go out in the light.

It sounds almost too simplistic. This is the kind of thing you’d make up in telling a campfire story about a generic boogeyman. But damme, it works! The climax of the story, with Blake watching in mounting terror during the huge electrical storm, is, in my opinion, the best thing Lovecraft ever wrote:

He had to keep the house dark in order to see out of the window, and it appears that most of his time was spent at his desk, peering anxiously through the rain across the glistening miles of downtown roofs at the constellation of distant lights marking Federal Hill. Now and then he would fumblingly make an entry in his diary, so that detached phrases such as “The lights must not go”; “It knows where I am”; “I must destroy it”; and “it is calling to me, but perhaps it means no injury this time”; are found scattered down two of the pages.

Then the lights went out all over the city. It happened at 2.12 A.M. according to power-house records, but Blake’s diary gives no indication of the time. The entry is merely, “Lights out—God help me.”

Lovecraft had a fair amount of disdain for classic ghost stories. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he wrote:

This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

But with “Haunter of the Dark” Lovecraft hit a terrific balance between his own incomprehensible creatures of inconceivably distant worlds and the most basic elements of an old-fashioned scary story. In almost all his stories, Lovecraft undercuts the atmosphere somehow, but this time, he kept a steady hand.

And to me, what makes this especially remarkable–poignant, even–is that it’s Lovecraft’s final story. He died in 1937, shortly after “Haunter of the Dark” was published in Weird Tales, and I think he had a sense that the end was near when he was writing it. It feels valedictory, from the way he quotes his own poem Nemesis as an epigraph, to the fact that he dedicated it to a younger protegé as a way of passing the torch, right down to its final lines. Admittedly, having a story end with the protagonist’s last words before death is a Lovecraft staple, but

I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wing—Yog Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye . . .

…was the last thing he wrote for publication, and this seems intuitively fitting. H.P. Lovecraft could not go out any other way.

This is why “The Haunter of the Dark” is always worth revisiting, especially at this time of year–“the aeon-shadowed Walpurgis time,” as Lovecraft would say. It encapsulates so much about Lovecraft–his unique philosophy of horror, the evocation of the eerie atmosphere he sought to create, and perhaps above all else, his skill at cultivating relationships with other weird fiction aficionados.

This is a post-apocalyptic zombie book. I should state up front: I’ve never really cared for the whole zombie genre. I saw Night of the Living Dead as a teenager and it didn’t seem remotely scary. I’ve played many video games with zombie-like enemies, but I never relish the levels that involve fighting hordes of the undead. They just seem gross to me, not scary.

“Okay, Berthold; then why did you read this book?”

Well, I’ll tell you. But, as usual, in my own time. First, let’s meet some of the characters.

As you might surmise, one of the major characters is named Zach. Zach is a former marine who lost his wife early in the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse. Shortly after that, he rescued a young girl named Abby from a zombie attack, and took her under his protection. Zach and Abby make a decent home for themselves in a cabin, but it soon comes under attack, forcing them to flee.

This leads to an episode that was rather tough for me. I don’t want to spoil it, even though it only occurs about a quarter of the way into the book, but it involved a trope that drives me nuts. Let’s just say it’s a hallmark of the post-apocalyptic zombie genre. Which, I guess, is probably one reason why I don’t read more post-apocalyptic zombie books. I don’t want to knock the book too much for this, since it may be a genre convention as much as anything.

Another reason I don’t read many post-apocalyptic zombie books is the intense violence. That’s not a criticism of the book, to be clear–I knew what I was letting myself in for by picking up a zombie apocalypse book–but some of the scenes were still pretty hard to take. I particularly don’t enjoy violence involving female characters, and there were some very brutal scenes of exactly that.

The first quarter of the book was tough going for me, but I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed what followed: first comes an extremely tense and well-paced episode at a military base, followed by Zach, Abby, and some new comrades they’ve met along the way discovering a town called “Little America,” which is seemingly a safe haven from the zombies and the gangs roving the wilderness.

Life is almost normal in Little America, and Zach and Abby find themselves living in near-peace. Abby starts going to school and making friends her own age, Zach makes a living as leader of the town militia. And both of them even find time for a little bit of romance–a boy from school for Abby, and for Zach, a woman named Amber, one of the people they met while trekking across the zombie-haunted wilds.

Up until Little America, His Name Was Zach is mostly a straightforward zombie story, but then there are three moments that stick out as unusual. 

The first is a scene where Zach sees a statue of George Washington and finds himself imagining a whole Revolutionary War battle going on around him. Some readers might find this passage a bit odd, but personally I loved it. First, because it’s offbeat and unexpected, which automatically makes it interesting, and second because I think it gives us a window into both Zach’s deep immersion in a timeless warrior ethos and his PTSD. It’s like it triggers a flashback to a war he wasn’t even in, but he feels a bond with those who fought in it all the same.

Actually, that’s something worth noting about this book: there’s a strange dissonance produced by the episodes of horrific violence–some of which is committed by Zach himself–and the serene, almost Andy Griffith-like wholesomeness of Little America, and Zach and Abby’s father-daughter relationship. It’s downright uncanny to conceive of a world that can contain sweet, beautiful things as well as disturbing, monstrous things. Yet, we know that the world–the actual, real-world, I mean–does in fact contain both, but our minds can’t really reconcile the two.

There have been books that I have abandoned because they are too relentlessly violent, too consistently bleak. Yet, in a strange way, unified bleakness is almost easier to think about than the jarring switch from soul-crushing horror to a world where things are, basically, all right. There were moments while reading His Name Was Zach that the letters “DNF” flashed across my mind, but it would always revert back to a more normal, almost pleasant tone–I say “almost” because the gnawing feeling of the horror lurking on the fringe would never quite go away.

This mirrors the personality of Zach himself. He describes it as a demon chained up within him, and when he is angered, that demon yanks at its chains and is capable of pushing him to terrifying extremes–but the rest of the time, he seems like any other normal guy, just trying to protect his loved ones and do his duty.

Speaking of which: eventually, Zach is sent outside of town on a mission, along with a group of the militia, in which they encounter one of the gangs, led by one of the most fascinating characters in the book–a drug-addled psychopath named Edmund, who is something of a cross between the Joker and Anton Chigurh.

And now, I’ll tell you why I read this book despite it being outside my reading comfort zone.

I’ve been very impressed by posts I’ve read on Martuneac’s blog. Like this one, where he argues that the reason Bilbo Baggins has such excellent luck in The Hobbit is because that’s how Tolkien saw life. Tolkien had survived World War I thanks to sheer luck, and so he had no problem having his characters survive due to the same.

I generally dislike plot contrivances that hinge on miraculous luck for the hero. But, Martuneac makes a strong case for them in that post. So much of life really is determined by chance, so why not have it be so in fiction as well? Fatalism born of seeing the random violence of war.

Edmund essentially embodies this concept. His encounter with Zach piles one strange coincidence on top of another. And I’ll admit, it’s the sort of thing I would complain about in fiction, but together with Martuneac’s reading of Tolkien, it takes on a nearly allegorical quality. It’s a statement about the bizarre, weird, freakish stuff that happens in life.

And that’s why I picked up this book: I’ve enjoyed reading the author’s blog, because of insights like this one. When I find a writing blog I like, it’s generally only a matter of time before I try one of the author’s books, even if they are outside my usual genres.

The third moment that stood out to me comes about three-quarters in, when the authorial tone briefly changes to directly address the reader. The entire story is in third-person, but only once does it actually turn into the voice of someone conscious that they are telling a story. The omniscient narrator tells us not only that this is a story, but, broadly, what’s going to happen next.

I found this interesting, because it’s a call-back to a much older, and currently unfashionable, form of storytelling. Readers may love or hate it. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it was different, and I like that.

There is one more section after that which I want to discuss: a part where Zach is forced to make a very difficult choice, It’s the sort of thing that veterans of Role-Playing Games will recognize, where one has to make a snap decision and either way will be forced to sacrifice something.

The amount of “time” spent on this was a little excessive. By “time,” I mean the way the scene was “paused” to allow the reader to read Zach’s internal monologue thinking through the implications of each choice.

Now, of course, as authors it’s our prerogative to mess with time in our stories however we like. We can make years go by in a single sentence, or spend a whole chapter on one single minute of existence.

My problem with this scene was that the consequences were already quite clear without needing to have spelled them out. I was sufficiently invested in the characters that I knew how serious the problem was without being told. And it happens in the middle of an action sequence, so it felt a bit jarring.

Finally, the end of the book. Again, I’m trying not to spoil anything, so I’ll just say this: I guessed where it was going before it got there, but despite this, it still produced the effect the author was going for. Now, I am perhaps the most easily-manipulated reader in the world, so maybe that’s not saying that much. But, for what it’s worth, it worked on me even though I saw it coming.

This is the first book in a series, and the ending does a good job at simultaneously being a satisfying ending point while also setting up the next book. 

One technical note: the dialogue was at times a bit clunky–characters would say things that sounded more like speeches than spoken dialogue. I found myself wondering if the story could have been told with less dialogue, in keeping with the older style of omniscient storytelling that I alluded to above. (H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, for example, contain very little dialogue, often summarizing conversations instead of quoting them.) On the other hand, that might be just too weird for most modern readers.

And now, a word about zombies. 

I was actually pleased by how little the zombies featured in the story–they are mostly a “background menace,” used sparingly and for maximum effect. I liked this, but then since I am not a zombie fan, I would. People who just can’t get enough zombies may be disappointed. 

Also, for the record, they are the fast-moving, predatory zombies; not the the slow, shambling kind. They also have one curious trait I’ve not seen in other zombie stories, in that they are somewhat capable of responding to Pavlovian conditioning. 

I mention these things only because I know there are people out there who care deeply about the quality of their literary zombies, and connoisseurs will be upset if they find themselves reading a zombie book that features the wrong kind of walking corpses.

Wow, I really am going on, aren’t I? Normally when I write a post this long, it’s to complain about a Star Wars movie. But I have to say one more thing in closing, which is that His Name Was Zach isn’t really about the plot, or even the setting. This is a character-driven book, plain and simple, and it really all hinges on how the reader feels about Zach and Abby. The dynamic between them is what “makes” the story.

It’s probably not a book for everyone, in particular not the squeamish. Then again, it may be that there are no readers more squeamish than I am, and even I made it through. But if you can handle the violence, it’s worth a look, and Martuneac is a promising author. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work.

“Come with me, and I’ll be your guide,” H.P. Lovecraft said to me.
“I’m no Virgil, but you’re no Alighieri.”
 We set off into the night, separated but a scant few paces–
Our path lit by twinkling jack-o’-lantern faces.
The October moon was low, the westward wind howled sad.
“Lovecraft,” I asked, “Why did you have to be so bad?”
He stopped, and regarded me a while, then said:
“I was full of hate because I was afraid.”
Then he added, “But it may be my hate-filled heart
Alone could have produced my weird and fearful art.”
We walked in silence then, entering the grove
Where in the night wind, the hulking boughs creaked and hove.
Through the shadows, in the flickering moonlight’s glow,
I touched the dial on my pocket radio.
I half-expected I would hear, from some high desert, a distant Bell;
As if to summon me away, to Heaven or to Hell.
But only buzzing static greeted me instead–
The growling traces of a signal long ago gone dead.
I put the radio away, thinking it was foolish of me,
When suddenly, I thought I heard beating wings above me.
But gazing up, saw only that chill autumn sky.
My companion chuckled, “More things are here than you and I.”
We came into a clearing, the dead leaves crackling ‘neath our feet
And upon a huge, smooth stone, he bade me take a seat.
“Listen!” he commanded, “Listen to the cosmic hum around!”
I obeyed, and heard–no, felt!–that omnipresent sound.
Shapes and visions flashed inside my troubled mind–
Ghosts and devils, fiends and demons, ghouls of every kind.
Methought I saw whole worlds, whole realms our own beyond
And smoky black crevasses that in our own existence yawned.
“Do you see?” he asked, recalling me to that shadowy forest floor.
“I do,” I answered. “I see it all. And I would know more.”
He laughed. “Know more? No more! ‘Nevermore,’ as the poet Poe would say–
What we have seen exists only on life’s fringes, and there it’s bound to stay.
The nature of the weird and frightful is that it’s forever out of reach.
You and I are still upon the placid island–if only on its beach.”
He paused, and looked carefully, clinically at me.
“But,” he said at last. “You can still listen to that darkly murmuring sea.”
I closed my eyes, and listened, and could hear the awful roar–
Whether the black surf of the ocean, or the leaves that rustled o’er.
At last, my eyes I opened, and my companion had disappeared,
Leaving me alone with that tingling dread sensation of the Weird.
Upon the ground where he had stood, I saw a folded note.
I picked it up and from it read aloud the words he wrote:
“You and I, we are both strange and frightened men
Who find ourselves with but one tool to wield–the pen.
With this, we must gather and impart unto our friends
The things that we have seen–the things that shall remain when all else ends.”

WishboneYes, you read the year correctly. This is not in chronological order.  I saved the best for last. 

Wishbone, for those not in the know, was a children’s TV series about a talking Jack Russell terrier (voiced by Larry Brantley) who imagined himself in various classic works of literature. There was also a series of books based on the concept, and I’ve blogged before about the impact the Wishbone adaptation of le Fanu’s Green Tea had on me as an impressionable youth.

But this episode of the show takes the (dog) biscuit for greatest Wishbone-related Halloween memory in my childhood. The opening sequence, showing Wishbone the dog trotting through his hometown of Oakdale, makes me instantly nostalgic for the sidewalks of my own small hometown in October, when the leaves change and the kitschy decorations come out. Wishbone’s narration says it all:

“It’s late October, and everything seems just a little different… something strange is in the air. Something chilling. What could it be? Leaves are learning to dance… sheets are learning to fly… and pumpkins are suddenly growing faces! No doubt about it; there is something in the air. Something that makes people do the strangest things…”

Also, before I get going on the plot synopsis, can I just say how much I love this sweater worn in the opening scene by Ellen, (Mary Chris Wall) the mother of Wishbone’s teenaged owner, Joe (Jordan Wall)? Does it surprise you much to learn that I can’t resist a woman in a jack-o’-lantern sweater?

Ellen in a pumpkin sweater

Anyway, on to the story. Joe is nervous about Halloween, because he is superstitious, and fears the day will be bad luck for him. This feeling only worsens when a black cat crosses his path as he’s taking Wishbone for a walk. But that night, his friends Sam (Christie Abbott) and David (Adam Springfield) convince him to join the Halloween scavenger hunt sponsored by the town’s new sporting goods store. 

Joe’s superstitious anxiety reminds Wishbone of Ichabod Crane, and we now are transported to the world of Wishbone’s imagination, where he envisions himself as the protagonist of Washington Irving’s short story.

Let me pause for a moment. Here are some establishing shots of the location meant to be Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow that they use in this episode:

ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION, HOLLYWOOD PEOPLE WHO BLEACH THE COLOR OUT OF EVERYTHING?

Seriously, you would think Hollywood literally believes color didn’t exist until color film was invented. Go back and see my review of the Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow and look at the stills. Now tell me which one better resembles Irving’s description in the original:

“It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day, the sky was clear and serene, and Nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet…

…As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly Autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples—some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies…”

A 1997 children’s program starring a dog was able to do a better job of establishing atmosphere than a Hollywood production starring A-listers made a couple of years later. Think about that.

Joe reluctantly joins his friends on the scavenger hunt, where they find themselves competing against the school bully and the series’ running “villain” Damont Jones, and his annoying cousin Jimmy. 

Wishbone Cast
David (Adam Springfield), Sam, (Christie Abbott) and Joe (Jordan Wall) on a Halloween adventure.

After solving riddles that lead them to challenges like shooting galleries, toy racetracks, and an incredible Rube Goldberg machine, Joe, Sam and David find that the last leg of their journey takes them to an abandoned old house where, as young boy, Joe was frightened by a pair of mysterious glowing eyes looming at him out of the doorway.

Swallowing his fear, Joe follows his friends in. Damont has already gone inside, leaving Jimmie outside, shivering and repeating “He went in, but I’m not goin’ in,” in a super-creepy way. 

All this while, Wishbone has been imagining himself in the role of Ichabod, as he confronts his own worst supernatural nightmare. The adaptation is, as always on Wishbone, done gamely by actors who performed their roles far better than they needed to. Special shout-out to Baltus Van Tassel, who mutters, as he looks around at the autumn wind rustling the leaves, “There’s quite a brew stirring this evening.” Love the way he delivers this line. 

The great thing about Wishbone was that the writers almost never sugarcoated major plot elements in the stories, even though they were adapting them for children. Wishbone-as-Ichabod still gets a flaming jack-o’-lantern flung at him by the Horseman.  Admittedly, it’s just a hokey CGI jack-o’-lantern, but still, they weren’t pulling any punches. Likewise, they preserve the ambiguity of Irving’s original tale as to whether it really was a ghost, or just an elaborate prank.

The real-life plot with Joe, Sam, and David has a much happier ending, as our heroes emerge triumphant from the house, and Joe realizes that all along, the thing that had scared him in the old house was just that pesky black cat, which they see running out of the house. 

Everyone heads off for a party at the sporting goods store—but we catch one last glimpse of the old house that suggests maybe the eyes didn’t belong to the cat after all…

I’m sure there is a degree to which my impression of this show is colored by rose-tinted nostalgia glasses. But really, I just can’t imagine not finding it to be an enjoyable seasonal treat. It’s got just the right balance of fun, spookiness and mischief needed for a good Halloween story. And it’s designed to teach kids about reading. Not just how to read, but how to get the most out of reading—by seeing how stories you read are relevant to your own life. That was the real magic of the Wishbone series, and it’s on full display here. It’s a show about imagination, and to my mind, that’s what Halloween is all about, too. It’s a celebration of what we like to imagine might be out there in the darkest of forests after midnight; a holiday all about fantasy and mystery and magic. 

AngelThis short story is a modern tale of un-dead horror. I won’t spoil exactly what type of monster is involved, but readers will probably be able to guess. There’s a clever twist on some classic mythology that enables three high school kids to do battle with an ancient evil.

There are elements of dark comedy as well as horror. And despite its brevity, Abbott gives us more than enough info to care about the characters, and even weaves in a sort of redemptive arc for one of them. 

The text is supplemented with excellent illustrations by Kate Whitmore that provide a face to go with the name for several characters.

This is darker and gorier than Abbott’s other short story, Harvest, but both of them are very good in their own ways. There are plenty of references to classic horror stories and films in this one that fans of the genre will surely appreciate. All in all, a great short story for the Halloween season.