Status Report: On Skulls and Disappearing Characters

Time for the bi-weekly status report! Work is coming along rather well; as I had hoped, I finally tied the ribbon on the fourth and final draft of Chapter 24 on Tuesday. Thank God. It’s a vitally important chapter (but then again aren’t they all), but it’s also the longest one, or perhaps that’s a result of its importance, I don’t know. Almost 20 pages double-spaced. It took 26 days of real time, or 14 hours of pure, concentrated writing and editing time. By far the longest and most complex of chapters in this iteration of the novel. Not sad to say goodbye, though I will certainly revisit it during the “critique” phase.

Currently in the early phase of the first draft of Chapter 25. This is where I dream up individual pieces and snippets from the planned chapter and write them out in pieces – a quote here, an action there. It usually takes two or three days to get to the point of stitching them together, but once I do, boom! First draft done. That’s scheduled to wrap up on the 4th, but it could be done more quickly, depending on the length of the chapter. Hard to say at this stage, and I don’t have a solid timeframe on how long the chapter will take, though my goal is Thanksgiving, which is somewhat aggressive given how busy my workload will be at the office. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’m giving thought to characters and “subplots” that either don’t add anything or never went anywhere as the story evolved. At least two characters will no longer exist by the time this book releases, with a third mentioned in passing only. Just the nature of the beast.

Still, crazy to think that I’m working on the final first draft of Came to Believe. The next first draft will be in service of Lindsay’s novel, which remains unnamed at the moment. Probably some riff on the first one, like “Verb to Noun.” “Stopped to Relieve”.

Anyway, that’s where I am for this week…talk to you again soon and have a Happy Halloween.

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Halloween Post: Rockin the Box

Talk about something strange; while I’m sure I’ve mentioned Harrisonburg, VA as my birthplace and my bio states that I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, I don’t think I’ve talked about my actual hometown. While I would call Dayton, VA my hometown, I spent the first five years of my life in the “unincorporated community” of Lacey Spring.

I credit this to being five when we moved away. Oh, sure, I have some solid memories of Star Wars toys, of playing with Tony across the street and rapidly discovering what it meant to be on the outside looking in (he was the only Hispanic kid in the neighborhood, I was the only fat kid), and of being hit in the face with a rock, but when it comes to Halloween, the nominal subject of this post, I have precious few memories. Photos exist, to be sure. I’ve seen the chubby little kid in brown corduroys with a lavish spread of Halloween candy, and a toddler in a Big Bird costume, but I have no tangible recall of those moments.

My strongest memory is of making a trek to the Lacey Spring Grocery on a hot day to get Sunkist soda, which was always my favorite. It felt like such a long walk back then, but Google informs me that it was a mile-and-a-half. I suppose that’s the nature of being a four-year-old with four-year-old legs. Sadly, the grocery closed down at some point and I can find no photos of what it looked like in its heyday. I recently visited the place, and here’s what it looks like today:

Lacey01

The place is white in my memories, which makes sense with that block of white on the right-hand side. Paint job at some point? Anyway. We moved to Dayton in July of 1981; easy to nail down the date as I have vivid memories of that July 4th. They shot off fireworks from the high school down the street, which blew my little mind. Granted, Dayton’s population couldn’t have been more than 750 people at the time, but compared to Lacey Spring it was a veritable metropolis, full of possibility.

The park where I played as a child.

The park where I played as a child. In ’81 this was an empty field.

We lived in Dayton for 14 years and, consequently, most of my Halloween memories revolve around that place. Hell, it still retains a spooky vibe in the Autumn, even when I revisit it as an adult. The thing about Dayton is that so much of its history still lives on, from the circa-late 19th century buildings downtown to the graveyard (which itself once abutted a long-lost church) with graves dating back to the 1700s. Oh, let’s not forget the potentially-haunted Silver Lake, which was the previous site for said church until a spring flooded out the grounds. Supposedly there are still gravestones in some spots, though I have no idea if anyone has verified this claim. The point is that the ghosts of Dayton’s past still walk the grounds, and it was a fertile place for my imagination.

Silver Lake

I loved to walk the streets around Sunset as the days grew short. A lot of people in Dayton still relied on wood stoves to heat their homes, so the place had this wonderful smoky scent that permeated the air. Imagine a combination of that odor with the loamy smell of fallen leaves and the ambient blue-and-purple lighting that fell across the nigh-deserted side streets and alleys. Absolute magic for a kid fascinated by the dark and decay. I’d stay out there for hours until the sky went black, and even then I’d sometimes linger under the oaks, peeking up through the last few wavering leaves to watch the twinkling stars overhead.

Dayton didn’t have a large population of kids, but we celebrated Halloween hard and well. Oh, we had our usual childhood stratification, with the older kids focusing on pranks and the younger kids focusing on trick-or-treating (sans parents, of course, you could still safely walk the streets alone), but there was a sense of it being a town-wide event. 1985 and 86 were the best that I can remember, though 85 is a little fuzzy, save this photo of me with that year’s Jack-O-Lantern. Note the sweet Movie Channel T-Shirt.

Movie_Channel

My touchstone would be 1986, which would be my last year in Elementary school and represent a jumping-off point to adolescence. We had just discovered the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and, while I would have to wait until Christmas for my own system, several of my friends already had theirs, and they were playing Castlevania that Fall. This would become my go-to-world to visit while I walked through streets, imagining myself as a rogue vampire hunter roaming the graveyard and climbing through construction sites. How could you resist such a fantasy? Practically crack, pure distilled badass as far as I was concerned.

Castlevania

And boy did I think I had a sweet costume in place that year. I didn’t dress as Simon Belmont, the hero of Castlevania (that would be a few years later, for a school dance), but I had something else in mind. That year also represented the last big bang of toys for me, in particular M.A.S.K., GI Joe and Transformers. I had developed a fascination with the recently-released Transformers movie, in particular the character Blurr, a fast-talking futuristic car/robot combination. I have no idea if he’s made an appearance in the live-action movies (I avoid those as much as possible), but I was in love. I had to dress as this robot. Now, keep in mind that this is what the character looked like:

Blurr01

By now you may have figured out that we weren’t exactly rich and, even if you did have money back in those days, you couldn’t exactly pop down to a Michael’s  and buy costuming materials. You either bought off-the-rack or tried to build your own the best you could. Blurr wasn’t a star character like Megatron or Optimus Prime, so the off-the-rack option was gone from the beginning. So, being the, ahem, creative child that I was, I decided to create one myself. With boxes. And face paint. And hair dye.

It turned out about as well as you’d expect. I mean, it wasn’t a terrible idea, but the execution lacked poetry, to say the least. It would become a neighborhood legend, in fact, spawning the nickname Boxman. My parents, God love them, have preserved this moment of shame so that I may share it with you.

Blurr

Not pictured: boxes on feet.

Hey, at least I tried. Sadly, no evidence remains of the Belmont costume, which actually did turn out pretty sweet and got compliments.

Such is life.

Hope all who celebrate have a Happy Halloween, and I’ll see you next week with some talk about Historical Preservation.

Coffin Hop Day 8: Old Versus New: Halloween

Happy Halloween, Coffin Hoppers! I can’t believe the day is finally here. Today I want to try something new…

I have to give my wife credit for the concept. “Why not compare something old to a remake?” she suggested, and I thought, yeah, why not? Why not do it on Halloween, in fact, and about Halloween, since I seem to be one of the few people on earth who enjoys Rob Zombie’s take on the franchise (at least, the first movie, the less said about its sequel the better). I’m going to be breaking it down in several categories to declare the winner, but I’d like to say a word or two about the remake, as I know it’s a controversial topic.

The original Halloween is a touchstone film for me; in many ways, it defines what I consider a horror movie. I’ve been a Halloween fan for as long as I can remember, since I saw the movie as a very young child. I’ve seen just about every Halloween movie that there is to see (save Resurrection, I couldn’t bring myself to go there). I say this to establish my fan “cred” and to underscore why I had reservations when I learned that Rob Zombie had been brought on board to reboot the franchise. I had enjoyed Zombie’s first movie, House of a Thousand Corpses, in the same way that you might enjoy a goofy, fun haunted hayride. Sure, it was silly, but I had a lot of fun with it. His second movie, The Devil’s Rejects, had a decidedly different tone and I just found the whole thing mean-spirited. I never made it through the movie despite numerous attempts. This led to my reservation with the Halloween remake.

Still, it looked good enough that I would give it a chance. After all, hadn’t I sat through a screening of the Curse of Michael Myers? I figured I owed the remake at least that courtesy.

And…I found that I actually enjoyed it. A lot. And then was further surprised to learn that so many people disliked it, especially the long-time Halloween fans. I heard their criticisms and saw their point of view, but I wondered if some people had missed what made Zombie’s version compelling for me. Let’s talk some about that today. We’ll start with…

Characters/Acting

We’ll look at the major characters and actors first.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis/Scout Taylor Compton). I’ve heard people say that the new Laurie is a little too world-wise, a little too aware of sexuality and related “mature” topics, but I think that’s a reflection of the different eras in which these films were created. By today’s standards, Zombie’s Laurie is a relative innocent; the original Laurie would be completely unrealistic if created today. I think the Zombie version manages to stay close to the essence of the character while respecting generational differences. Still, I give Jamie Lee Curtis the edge here. Her performance is a genre-definer, while Compton’s solid performance is simply “enough”. Winner: Carpenter

Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance/Malcom McDowell). I like Malcom, even if he’s made some huge missteps in his career. His version of Sam Loomis has some positives, but he also has the advantage of showing us his transformation from someone who genuinely wants to help Michael into someone who’s horrified by the monster that leaks beneath Michael’s facade. Pleasance didn’t have that, and yet he still managed to outshine McDowell’s Loomis. My problem with the latter-day Loomis is one of credibility. I simply didn’t know what to make of his behavior. Was he just out for publicity, or did he really care about Michael? What motivated him to chase down Michael that night – was it guilt or a desire to put himself into the spotlight? Ultimately his sacrifice spells it out for us, but Pleasance’s Loomis plays it much straighter, and I think his role calls for that. Winner: Carpenter

Michael Myers (Will Sandin, a cast of thousands/Daeg Farche, Tyler Mane). This is a tough one. It cuts right to the heart of the differences between the films. John Carpenter believed that no person should ever identify with Michael Myers, while young Myers in the new version is at times sympathetic. A lot of long-time fans felt this was a betrayal of the character, but I think if you’re going to do a remake right, you have to add new touches and examine the concept from a different angle. Otherwise, why even bother? In a lot of ways Carpenter’s take, while well-done, is the safer choice. You can sidestep some of the thornier questions of characterization and turn the character into more of a force of nature, something that drives the plot along. It works really well in the original, and I wouldn’t downplay it in the slightest. Zombie, on the other hand, attempts to make Myers into a more rounded character, if not entirely human. He doesn’t completely succeed, but he does make the effort. In the end, I feel that this is a push between the two – it’s just too different to declare a flat winner. But boy, wasn’t young Myers a lot creepier in the original? Look at that vacant stare and imagine seeing it stabbing you. Brr. Continue reading

Coffin Hop Day 6: Hurricane Sandy is here!

As most of you folks in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast know, Hurricane Sandy is blowing through our area. Things are already very cold and windy here, with the situation due to rapidly deteriorate tonight. I live on the 15th floor, so the already-dangerous 70 mph wind gusts are likely to be more like 80-85 up here. With that in mind, we’re currently focused on just riding this thing out, which means I probably won’t be updating much for the next few days. I do have one last fun post saved for Halloween day and am going to do my best to get it up. If not, I’ll have to post it once we have power.

Here’s what things look like from our balcony as of 10:30 this morning:

Not exactly the end of the world yet, but not great. I intend to keep on photographing as long as I can, so I can update here when time and power permits. Our thoughts are with the folks in the really dangerous part of this storm, though; the part with the dangerous surges and flooding. Stay safe.

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Coffin Hop Day 4: The Haunted Places of the World (Fiction) #coffinhop

Happy Saturday, you Coffin Hoppers! Having fun with the Hop so far? I know I am. I’ve already discovered some great authors on this hop, and hope to find more as the days progress. As always, you can scroll down to the bottom of this post for more information on the Coffin Hop, but for now, let’s take a look at the…

This is a two-day event. On the first day, we’re looking at some of my favorite fictional haunted (or mystical) places. Tomorrow, we’ll look at five real, legendary places. I know the title is Haunted Places, but I don’t necessarily mean “haunted”, I just mean those places that get under your skin and stay there.

One of my favorite fictional subjects, as evidenced in Abby the Hero, is the forgotten places of the world – the places where reality and myth merge. You’ve probably encountered one or two of these places in your own life; places that touch a nerve within you, without you even understanding why. I grew up near a lake that covered a submerged cemetery, and let me tell you, that place has never left my imagination. That’s the kind of place I’m talking about.

Now on with the list…

5. Haddonfield, Ill (Halloween). This one was an obvious choice; Haddonfield, in my mind, equals horror. Haddonfield is located in Livingston County, Illinois 3.5 miles northeast of the county seat of Pontiac. This north-central Illinois community is known for its Haddonfield Harvest Festival and high school football team, the Haddonfield Huskers. Haddonfield is also a town haunted by the events that took place on the Halloween nights of 1963, 1978, and 1988, at last banning the celebration of Halloween after another massacre in 1989.

Haddonfield had its ghosts, though; by the time Michael returned to town in 1978, the old Myers place had a reputation as a haunted house, and rightfully so, for Michael took up residence there almost as soon as he returned.

Haddonfield was named for real-life Haddonfield, New Jersey, co-writer and co-producer Debra Hill’s hometown. The second film also establishes that the murders of Laurie’s friends took place in the northwest section of Haddonfield on a street called Orange Grove. The real-life addresses for the houses used for the Doyle and Wallace residences are on Orange Grove Avenue in West Hollywood, California (credit to the Horror Wiki for these facts). Continue reading

Coffin Hop Day 2: My Top Five Horror Soundtracks

Welcome back to Coffin Hop 2012 on Shaggin’ The Muse. If you’re here for the prizes, scroll on down to the bottom until you reach the banner with the book covers. You can check them out, I don’t mind. Go on, I’ll wait.

Back? Cool. Now listen, I’m a complete and utter music junkie. This is the sheer, unvarnished truth; I’m enough of a junkie that I’ve been dubbed the “Song Robot” when it comes to knowing songs by a few notes. I got into the whole mess because I find a strong link between music and writing – the right music can make such a difference in how well the words flow. It only made sense to make my second Coffin Hop entry revolve around music. This time we’re looking at…

Horror movies have long been defined by their soundtracks, dating back to at least Psycho, with its iconic theme that played such an important role in building tension and suspense. If a horror movie is doing its job well, the story sucks you in to the point that you’re less aware of its soundtrack/score as something attached to the story and more of the music as a “part” of the story. That’s what I’m trying to identify here: what movies used their music to such an extreme effect, and do they stand up to listens without the movie?

So, let’s have some fun. I’d love to see what movies you’d include that I haven’t listed here. There are so many that just didn’t make the cut – I’m sure lots of you can identify which ones you like the best. For now, here’s my list.

Oh, and just a note, I didn’t include Psycho for a number of reasons (in my mind, it walks a fine line between thriller and horror), but I have to at least include the shower scene as an honorable mention. Notice how Hitchcock weaves the soundtrack even as Janet Leigh’s character sits at the desk, dropping it away as she goes to the bathroom and then bringing it back in full-force with the attack. I’m so envious of this technique; I wish writers could do such things.

Awesome. Especially when you consider the state of the art at the time.

5. Suspiria. The Italian prog-rock band Goblin could quite easily fill most of these spots, and that’s saying something, given my general attitude toward progressive. Goblin is best-known for scoring films for Italian filmmaker Dario Argento, who is best-known for films such as Inferno (a personal favorite that I feel gets far too little credit), Phenomena, and The Mother of Tears. None of Argento’s films, however, are as well-known or beloved as Suspiria, and for good reason. The movie itself is about a ballet dancer who travels to Germany to enroll at a dance academy. While she’s there, she discovers some shocking secrets that I’m not about to give away. Just check it out if you love horror, seriously.

Argento is also known for his effective (albeit somewhat bizarre) soundtracks, and Suspiria might have the best of them all. Like Hitchcock, he does an effective job of weaving the soundtrack into the film, and the stuff stands up on its own, in a “what-the-hell-am-I-listening-to” way. Tracks like Sighs sound something like the soundtrack to Hell. Give this a listen and just imagine waking up to it in the middle of the night:

4. The Omen. Not many movies scared me as much as the Omen when I was a child. The idea itself sent shivers down my spine; there’s something primal about the innocent child who turns out to be not just a bloodthirsty killer but the harbinger of doom. Something about the idea of such innocence turned on its head really gets my creative juices flowing. Continue reading

Recharging the Batteries with a Trip to the Dark Side

Everybody, you ready for another week? Ready to paint that smile on your face and press forward valiantly  I’m not sure that I am, but as usual lots of coffee and writing should get me through in a semblance of sanity. Let us pray that it works.

Now, I typically don’t talk too much about my weekend, or even day-to-day, activities on this blog. It’s hard to cite any one reason for my reticence. I guess I just don’t feel that many of those activities relate to the goals of this site, save for my writing and writing-related activities, and I mean, what am I going to do, update you on my daily word count? Nah. I don’t roll like that. I do enjoy telling you good folks about the development of my works, but even that can get tedious after awhile.

But hey, I’m lucky this week, and very happy to share something of my weekend with you folks. You see, this past weekend the wife and I attended first the Cox Farms Fall Festival, and then something called the Fields of Fear. Given the connection to horror and to the sorts of things that inspire my writing, I felt there was some relevance to offer to you, the reader. And if it’s not relevant, at least you can enjoy the pretty pictures.

So let’s be clear on one thing: I love Autumn. Seriously. My love of the season dates way back to at least age nine or ten. Back then I loved creeping around the deserted streets of my small hometown, watching the place settle down as the sun first set and then night fell. I thrilled to the sound of the wind through the skeletal branches that towered over me. I loved the aching feeling that I got in my bones when I saw nice warm lights in houses. It was desolation, but a nice sort of desolation.

It’s become very important for me to celebrate the arrival of Autumn and Halloween; every year I try to find some way to mark the passage of time, as my thoughts increasingly turn to my own mortality and the idea that I have one less Autumn remaining in my lifetime. Sure, that sounds morbid, but it reminds me of just how important it is to relish these things and celebrate them. It helps me to understand the root of the Halloween celebration.

This trip has become one of our shared traditions, and we both relish it. Thus, I feel fortunate to share some of it with you.

Let’s start by talking about the Fall Festival. This is, essentially, the more family-friendly, child-friendly version of Fields of Fear. We’re talking farm animals, lots of talk about what goes on down on the farm, hayrides, and…well, I’ll let some of the pictures talk for themselves.

The trip had an inauspicious start, as I first forgot to dig out the directions and then compounded the problem by not accepting the wife’s offer to print directions (male pride, hoooo). The real coup de grace on my dignity, however, happened when the GPS on both of our phones crapped out. So there we are in the sticks of Virginia, trying to find this place and knowing that they would stop allowing new visitors through the gates in the next 20 minutes. Moods were not exactly high, but I managed to stumble upon the right path, and we arrived with minutes to spare.

Hey, this guy was happy to see us.

We both really enjoy the day-time version of the festival – it’s “soft”, yes, but it has an enjoyably cheesy quality to it. And I mean, hell, who doesn’t want to see fluffy ducks and baby pigs? I don’t want to meet the person that doesn’t enjoy that sort of thing.

And I mean that.

Continue reading

She’s Just the Girl: Top Five Horror Heroines (and Anti-Heroines)

Welcome back for another week of Shaggin the Muse! I’m excited to get this week going, as I think I have some really fun items to share with readers. Today we start with a piece inspired by friend Kim Koning’s great post, Kick-Ass Heroines (seriously, check it out). Since I’ve been turning my eye more toward horror, dread, and all things dark, I figured it might be time to take a look at some of my favorite horror film heroines.

Now, let’s be clear: I understand that horror, or at least horror films, have a gender issue. A whole load of gender issues. A veritable newsstand of them. How many of these films and stories present the madonna/whore complex that you see in films like Friday the 13th? How many of these films betray a regressionist tendency to define women as sex objects? Way too many for me to be comfortable. The women in horror films are typically portrayed as passive victims, forced to run for their lives without stopping to fight or outsmart their pursuers. All too often they become simply macguffins, objects to be rescued by the heroic man of the story. It’s true that this began to change in the late 1970s, with Halloween being the most notable of films to begin the change, but the issue still exists.

That’s why I thought it might be interesting to look at the women who broke the mold.

Just a side-note, I debated on whether to add Clarice Starling to this list and ultimately left her off for a number of reasons. One is that I think the film Hannibal really harmed the character overall, but even leaving that aside, I just can’t bring myself to think of that series as a horror series. To me, they’re straight-up thrillers. Dana Scully may also belong on this list, but the X-Files blurred so many genre lines that I’m not sure I can put her here in good conscience.

So, that said, let’s take a look, shall we? Continue reading

What is Horror? Baby Don’t Hurt Me

Welcome to my thrilling stop on the banner TESSpecFic blog tour, the tour that dares to ask: “What is Horror”? This all started about a week or so ago when our fearless founder, Marie Loughin, posed quite the question: Just what is horror, i.e., how do you define the genre, especially as it relates to dark fantasy and other related genres? She invited each of us to take our shots and examine the question from our perspectives. In the process, we would also get to see the views of our fellow Emissaries and respond in kind. I think it’s been quite the success thus far; lots of intelligent replies and  See the end of this post for the whole list of worthy posts. It’s been fun, illuminating, and above all, intelligent. I hope I can hang in with the other folks.

Before I look at what some others have said, I felt I should begin by examining my own history with the genre. My love affair with horror began at a very young age, when I saw movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Alien. This meant that, from a very young age, I associated horror with blood, guts, and physical distress. It wasn’t until I was older and a little more sophisticated that I discovered the other side of the coin, that psychological terror and dread that can be just as effective as the physical threats of slasher stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I think both are valid as measures of horror, and while the term “psychological horror” gets bandied around, to me, horror is horror – psychological or more overt. So if that’s the case, how can I call my own work dark fantasy rather than horror? I thought about it, and realized that, in my mind, horror is based in reality, if a slightly warped version of reality. Halloween? Implacable serial killer on the loose in a small town. Check. The Shining? What may or may not be a haunted hotel transforms a man into a monster. Oh hell yes, and this fits in well with Jaye Manus’s definition:

Even killing the monster does no good because the reader is left with the realization that the monster is inside us and never going away.

I like that definition, but I have to disagree with it as a broader definition of horror. It can certainly be an element, but I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. Horror is all about fear – and our fears are not all directed at our own failings or the failings of our fellow man. Fear of snakes, for instance, is a primal fear, and has been used effectively in horror. Anything that is charged with negative, fearful emotion – that is horror. The most skillful authors can tap into their own fears, ones that others may not necessarily share, and convey them in such a manner that they become frightful to others. I don’t share, for instance, Clive Barker’s apparent fear of bees, but Candyman conveys it so well that you dread them when they show up, even if it walks the fine line between DF and horror.

So, all that said: what is dark fantasy? Well, according to Paul Dail and the publishing industry, it’s a sub-genre of horror, which would still make me a horror writer. I’ve tentatively accepted that, but I still feel that there are some significant differences between horror as an overall genre and dark fantasy. For me, dark fantasy is all about creating new fears – things that you might not have considered – in the context of a new world. Dark fantasy allows the author to create more expansive horizons. Ultimately, I think Charles L. Grant, the man who is said to have first created the term, put it best: “a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding.” (from Wikipedia) That Wikipedia article also says that Grant “often used dark fantasy as an alternative to horror, as horror was increasingly associated with more visceral works”, and that is exactly what I am trying to say here – horror is about the known or knowable threat, dark fantasy is about the unknowable threat.

The unknowable threat has always fascinated me, which is why I love dark fantasy. What other hazards might there be out there in the universe, ones which we don’t currently understand, or may never understand? Those are the questions I seek to answer.

Here are the rest of the posts from my esteemed colleagues, with Penelope’s post still to come:

Marie Loughin – Wednesday, 9th May

Jaye Manus – Thursday, 10th May

Paul D. Dail – Friday, 11th May

Kim Koning – Saturday, 12th May

Aniko Carmean – Sunday, 13th May

Penelope Crowe – Tuesday, 15th May

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Lost in the Orange: What Halloween Means to Me

Today, I wanted to do something a little different. Get a little more personal. Not in a “too much information” way, but sharing some memories and a bit of who I am.

Autumn has always been an important time of year for me. It had a lot to do with my formation as a writer and my feelings about creativity as a whole (see my post on writer’s vacation for more information on this), but Halloween itself played an even bigger part – not just in my creative development, but my psychological makeup as a whole.

One of my earliest Halloween memories is going trick-or-treating with my father in the late 70s. If I recall correctly, I was dressed as a chubby little cat (chubby from birth, was I) and got an enormous haul of candy – there are some photos that attest to this. I have no emotional timbre to that memory whatsoever, however. It’s just something that’s “there”. My first real tangible emotional memory from that period was getting hit in the face with a rock by a bully, but I guess that’s neither here nor there.

My first true emotionally resonant memory dates to the early to mid-80s. Somewhere between 84 and 86. By that point, I had learned to associate Halloween with horror films (the dark, exploitative ones, mind you – the kind that my mother would catch on late-night HBO or The Movie Channel) and a general, undefinable sense of dread. I have a very strong memory of coming home from school one mid-October day and finding that the setting sun had lit the house ablaze with an eerie orange light, the same hue as a pumpkin. It had a strange, ethereal quality to it, one that I’ve never seen repeated since. I remember feeling an intense sense of dread and unease. I couldn’t explain it. It felt as if some sort of supernatural force recognized that dread and was intensifying it.

It sounds crazy now, looking for patterns in the chaos, but looking back I can see that moment has become very influential in my writing – I like to add little nods to that moment in stories, where a character feels as though something larger is attempting to communicate with him or her.

Oh, that was also the year that I dyed my hair blue, painted some boxes blue and tied them to my body, and went as the most ridiculous version of the Transformers’ Blurr you’ve ever seen.

This was a time…before. That’s the best way to explain it. It was a time when it was safe for children to go out and trick-or-treat or play on their own. Of course, that could still be the case in small communities, and what’s changed isn’t the times but my location. Hard to say. But it was a small town, less than a thousand people, and a time when everyone knew each other despite a lack of social networking tools. Adults knew each other and/or their children, and if a child hurt him or herself, a local was there to help more often than not.

Now, sure, I liked trick-or-treating with my friends as much as the next kid, especially once the sun was down. For better or worse, though, the first five years or life were very insular, especially as an only child, so my ritual was to start my Halloween journey on my own.

The more I think about this, the more I connect that sunset lighting up the house to my own fascination with sunset itself. Sunsets have always been evocative of an almost superstitious dread (one that I love), and while on a rational level I want to say that as a child I had not much of a concept of death, I know there’s no way that’s the truth. I was a particularly fearful and cautious child, and one of my greatest fears was death and the bodily harm that might come with it – for my childhood, one of the most horrific movie scenes was the death of the pumpkin-masked kid in Halloween 3. Ridiculous movie, but that gave me the shivers for years.

So I remember clearly having those fears and those fears being tied to Halloween and the movies that allowed me to confront those fears head-on and share in something that was emotionally larger than myself. I think that’s what Halloween is about for those cultures that celebrate it: facing the fear of death itself.

For a long time after my childhood, the holiday didn’t mean a whole lot to me. I wasn’t interested in dressing up and going to some party – what was the point? I’d rather just throw on some clothes and go get plastered. I didn’t really get into the whole thing until my early 30s. Since then, I’ve made a special effort to celebrate it, especially so in the last few years, as I’ve come to realize that some of that dread and fear was due to suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder for most of my life.

Looking back, it’s very clear that when October came along and the days got shorter, I started to withdraw into an internal world. That’s not all bad, but it was a coping mechanism to escape the crushing depression that closed in on me. Today, as I know how to cope and am aware of the physical changes that pull at me as the days shorten, I think it’s important to recognize my emotional landscape by embracing traditions and rituals that ground me to the person that I once was – recognizing that I once suffered and being kind to that person who once suffered. It’s also important to face those fears and acknowledge that I have changed in major ways.

In a way, that’s facing the fear of death. Change is death. By connecting to that primal fear of death, I can also celebrate the growth and change inherent in life’s bumpy transitions. I think sometimes we just have to acknowledge that life is imperfect and scary, stare that in the eyes without dwelling on it. Acknowledge it, celebrate it, let it pass.

Celebrating that fear is important, because it makes us human. Without those instincts, we wouldn’t be here.

That’s what Halloween means to me. What was once a fun holiday filled with candy and costumes tempered with a tinge of dread has become a chance to acknowledge my own shortcomings and celebrate the fact that I’m alive.

Okay, and the costumes are still fun.