It was the Saturday before Halloween and Nathan was walking the edge of his apartment switching on all of the white noise machines. This was his bedtime ritual, but tonight he was tuning the dials early, listening for a tone lower than static and higher than thunder, something in the same range as human speech. The moment he found the right waveform he heard a series of loud percussive booms. Someone was trouncing across the ceiling with stiletto heels on. Nathan had muzzled the party banter, but the floorboards might as well have been made of balsawood.
Nathan threw open the cupboards, the liquor cabinet, and the bathroom mirror. He set a handful of bottles, a cocktail shaker, and an eyedropper on the kitchen counter. His cat, Pazuzu, watched from the refrigerator, a grey gargoyle tallying his master’s sins.
Nathan fixed himself a cocktail of ginger beer, dark rum, Nyquil, and dextromethorphan. He’d dubbed this concoction: a Stephen King-Colada. The blend of depressants and bargain-basement PCP had become a staple of his writing routine. It hadn’t inflated his wordcount so much as it numbed him for keeping count.
Pazuzu backed into the cupboard as Nathan drank the deadly concoction from his skull-shaped mug. The cat knew to keep to the high ground whenever that ceramic cranium was out. Nathan plunked down at the kitchen table, pried his laptop open, and pecked at the keyboard. He typed:
It was a dark and stormy night and a hack horror writer was thinking about giving up on the genre forward, maybe to advance his career, maybe to make first dates a little less awkward. The horror community had met him with cold indifference and now the feeling was mutual.
Nathan sighed. “Bah humbug.”
Then he melted down the chair and into the carpet.
There was a bump in the night, followed by several more. Each one was closer than the rager on the upper floor. Large heavy feet fell across the kitchen table.
Nathan’s torso shot awake while his legs stayed dead asleep. His knees were bent, his feet were at his sides, and his back was flat on the floor. It looked like he’d fallen asleep in the middle of a power slide. The kitchen table creaked as hunched back shadows skulked across the walls. Nathan followed the silhouette certain he’d spot Pazuzu, but then he caught the glint of the cat eyes behind the couch. Pazuzu was retreating, yielding his territory to whatever was huddled atop the table.
Nathan scanned the rim for movement. He saw what seemed like a long sturdy chain, but when it grazed the brim of the table the sound was hallow and plastic. Behind it was a length of jack-o-lantern lights, and a knotted stretch of cobweb.
Nathan couldn’t help but chuckle.
The intruder leapt from the dining room to the coffee table, spun around, and crouched, a prehistoric bird eyeing an early mammal wondering if it were edible. The intruder wore a witch’s hat with horns jutting through the brim. His face was enshrouded in a veil cheesecloth. His cloak was a patchwork of webbing, chains, and rubber limbs. His hands clutched the corner of the table. One featured a Freddy Krueger claw, the other was covered in rubber finger monsters.
Nathan scurried up the chair to find the intruder looming over him from the kitchen table. Beyond the intruder’s veil was a bejeweled masquerade mask and a face dripping with clown makeup.
The intruder lifted Nathan by the collar and raised his veil.
Nathan squinted, bewildered, but ultimately unphased.
The intruder raised his mask. “You know they say people who don’t react to loud jarring noises are probably psychopaths?”
Now Nathan recognized the intruder. “Thomas Marshall Cobb.”
Cobb raised a corrective finger. “T.M. Cobb, remember. Initials make sales. So sayeth mine publisher of yore.”
Nathan swatted Cobb’s hand away from his collar.
“You’re dead. I know people who went to your funeral.”
“You know them? You couldn’t afford the $160 air fair?”
“I have issues with suicide.”
“Suicide?” Cobb chortled. “Christ, I’m not a poet. I had a heart attack. Is that how they spun it? Did my sales go up?”
Nathan shrugged. “A little. Why do you look like you rolled around in a tub of Hot Topic?”
“Oh this?” Cobb stretched his webbing. “It’s my penance.”
“That doesn’t look so bad.”
“You try taking a dump in this thing.”
“Ghosts have bowel movements?”
T.M. Cobb gave that a long certain nod. “Runny, prickly ones.”
“What’s your diet?”
“Wax syrup sticks, raisins, and rock candy.”
Nathan nodded. That would do it. “So, why are you dressed like a Party City Jacob Marley?”
“Because I betrayed my passions. I gave up on horror and wrote soulless procedural thrillers.”
“And that landed you in Hell?”
T.M. Cobb nodded. “Halloween hell, where all the best parts of the holiday are absent. Where the succubi dress like Horny Helen Keller, Mistress Mother Teresa, and filthy Anna Frank. Where they make you bob for apples in a public urinal and every night we go trick or treating, but the tricks are on us. Have you ever been pelted with a hardboiled egg fired from a potato gun?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
Cobb dropped his trousers, revealing a network of purple welts across his butt cheeks. “These ain’t hemorrhoids.”
Nathan covered his eyes, then his nose.
Cobb buckled back up. “There are no haunted houses, just religious Hell houses where they lecture us on the dangers of vaping grass and premarital petting. There are no scary stories, just Christian comics on the Satanic subtext of the season. Everyone texts via Ouija boards. Everyone travels via hayrides. There’s a drive-in, but the only movie that ever plays is The Exorcist 2. Oh, and I hope you like the Monster Mash, because that shit is running twenty-four seven.”
Nathan shook the opening notes of the tune from his head. “All because you sold out?”
Cobb tilted his head back forth. “I bludgeoned a couple of hitchhikers with a tire iron. I suppose that’s also frowned upon.”
“Why did you do that?”
Cobb threw his hands up. “Why does a writer do anything? For research! I’d lived such nice vanilla life I figured the good lord could toss me a couple freebies. Anyway, I’m here to help you sort your shit out.”
“I’m not too worried about killing hitchhikers. I Uber everywhere.”
“You say that now, but people are fragile. It wouldn’t hurt to score some Karma points while you can.”
Nathan muttered. “I’m pretty sure those dogmas are incompatible.”
Cobb cupped a hand to his ear. “What was that?”
“I said you look like a stay at home dad’s cry for help.”
Cobb swatted Nathan with his claws. Nathan felt his cheek surprised to find blood dripping down on his fingers.
Cobb recoiled at his own handy work. “Whoa! These are plastic. I didn’t think they’d actually cut you. I’ll go get a towel.”
“My cat got me earlier. You just opened the scab again.”
“Why don’t you have paper towels?”
“Why are you here?”
Cobb unspooled a length of toilet paper from his arm and dabbed Nathan’s cheek.
“I had a vision, the last time I was in the toxic trough, bobbing for apples. I saw you turning your back on the horror genre and writing Cozy Mysteries.”
“They’re like thrillers, but with the stakes way lower. All the violence happens off stage and all the sex is replaced with quant community functions.”
“Like Murder, She Wrote?”
“Exactly like Murder, She Wrote.”
“I knew Angela Lansbury was a bad influence on me.”
“Well, I’ve contracted some entities in the horror community to help steer you back in the right direction. It will be like A Christmas Carol, but not quite as preachy. They’ll show you that there’s still millage in the genre, or you’ll end up like me, or worse.”
Cobb nodded, shaken by the thought. “I’ve seen writers in Halloween Hell forced spend eternity dressed as Where’s Waldo.”
“With the red striped shirt and the poof ball hat? But that’s so tacky.”
“I know. That’s why you need to drink the rest of this.” Cobb handed Nathan his half-finished cocktail.
Nathan guzzled it down and went down with it.
THE GHOST OF HORROR PAST
Nathan came to in the middle of a Barnes and Noble as a fleet of sneakers touched down around him. Foot traffic was so congested it phased clean through him. Mothers held their children’s hands as they came around corners. Father’s sucked their guts in as they waited for one another to pass. Children tried to muster the strength to walk with boxsets in their grip.
Nathan teetered to his feet as a train of strollers phased through his torso one by one. Dizzy, Nathan struggled to take in his surroundings. Rolling ladders screeched along their tracks. Book carts creaked through the aisles. Stools scrapped along the carpeting. Everywhere he looked people were reading, riffling through shelves, filling baskets with books.
Nathan examined the endcaps to find a gallery of hand painted horror covers: a procession of black robes, curvy daggers, and tentacles. Reptilian talons rose through the graveyard soil. Porcelain dolls stood at the edge of cribs. Sultry Satanists leaned over cauldrons. Nathan had never seen such a showroom of serpents, skeletons, and flaming pentagrams. He’d gotten used to riffling through Sci Fi/Fantasy shelves for obscure horror titles, but when he rounded the corner he found a horror section that was two isles long.
Nathan reached for a title at random. It read: Confessions of Satanic Cheerleader by Thomas Marshall Cobb. The titular cheerleader had a skull for face, a Red Devils sweater and a pom-pom dripping with blood.
Nathan flipped the book over to find a portrait of Cobb done up like Grandpa Munster: a widow’s peak, caked on makeup, and high collared cape.
“Bet you’ve never seen so many red and black paperbacks in all your life.”
Nathan spun around, but none of the patrons were looking in his direction let alone addressing him.
“Down here. Hep cat.”
Nathan shifted his gaze to a stout little demon with a black beret, red flip shades, and a soul patch.
“You’re not a ghost.”
The demon flipped its shades up. “No day passes for the dead daddy-o. I’m Zazimsberg, keeper of the infernal archives.”
Nathan was hit with a sudden wave of vertigo. He dropped the paperback in his hand and found himself leaning against the bookshelf.
Zazimsberg scanned Nathan’s eyes. “You still riding the Tussin dragon, son?”
Nathan nodded. “When are we?”
Zazimsberg raised his stubby fingers to the black and red volumes all around him. “This is that glorious era between Rosemary’s Baby and Silence of the Lambs, when gloom-riddled grimoires ruled the nation’s nightmares, when poltergeists and possession kept pages turning, and the supernatural cast a long shadow on the bestsellers list.”
Nathan struggled to maintain his balance as he paced the aisle, scanning the shelves. “No way.” The horror section was broken into subgenres: Gothic, Cosmic, Supernatural, Psychological, and Slashers. “I can’t believe there was ever this much horror literature.”
“Believe it, syrup head. Back before Netflix, people had either this or the passion pit to get their horror fix.”
“Passion Pit, like the band?”
Zazimsberg snapped his fingers. “Passion pit, pucker palace, pound pagoda…Whatever you call drive-ins these days?”
Nathan scanned his brow. “Cineplex and chill?”
“Well horror was here and there, if you didn’t have anyone to play back seat bingo with this is where you ended up.”
Nathan shook his head as rainbow trails streaked through his vision. “I can’t believe horror was never this popular. I think you’re seeing things through ruby colored glasses?”
“They’re prescription.” Zazimsberg scurried up a rolling ladder and straddled the bookshelf. “Besides this hootenanny is temporary. The horror market is headed for crashville. Once the FBI coins the term: serial killer, a generation of armchair psychologists get hung up on psychopaths. Everyone hip to the supernatural gets seduced by the likes of Hannibal Lecter.”
“Except for Stephen King.”
Zazimsberg rubbed his hands together. “Except for Stephen King. There’s a man who knows his groceries. If you weren’t too Dixie fried on the Dextro, you might noddle this one out for me: why did King survive the horror crash while so many of his peers put an egg in their shoes and beat it?”
Nathan wasn’t sure what decade he was in, but looking at the shelf, Stephen King had already amassed a bewildering bibliography. “King was prolific. He never took a break. His titles were in a perpetual promotion cycle and his brand never went stale.”
Zazimsberg cackled at the ceiling. “Spoken like the mayor of Squaresville. No, King knew people. He gave regular folks something to relate to. Sure, he checked all the genre boxes, wrote his share of dark cellars, but he always made you care about the people who went down there.”
Nathan rubbed his temples. “So characters first, situation second, but what if I’m not much of a people person?”
“You’re going to have to learn to mingle baby, because if people don’t see themselves in your fiction, how are they supposed to get lost in it?”
Nathan nodded, not so much in agreement, but to give himself time to think. “That’s all well and good for you, Bohemian Blasphemy, but what if people don’t feel like talking to me?”
Zazimsberg clasped his sausage fingers together. “Dig this. You ever seen a high class chick with some dumb dopey ape?”
“All the time.”
“Ever wonder how that happened?”
“The ape introduced himself.”
“So what? I should ask a bunch of randos for insights into human condition?”
Zazimsberg pried a book from the top shelf, flung it, and tipped its neighboring titles over. “If you can’t be bothered to care about people, why should they care about your characters?”
“Because they’re in interesting predicaments?” Nathan sidestepped the falling books.
“Like a bug getting its legs pulled off?”
“Or a cow being tipped off a cliff?” Zazimsberg tipped another row of paperbacks.
“I guess.” The books crashed at Nathan’s feet.
“Or a writer getting belted with hardcovers?”
Nathan looked up right as a big fat art book caught him between the eyes.
THE GHOST OF HALLOWEEN PRESENT
Nathan awoke on the floor of a moonlit corridor. Something tickled the back of his throat. He coughed and watched the particles swirl toward the rafters. Moon beams shone through windows that lined the ceiling. Nathan was in a basement. The dust covers that wrapped the furnishing caught the light, as did the cobwebs stretching from the candelabras, and the suits of armor beneath the tapestries.
“So is this like an Inception thing? Every time I get knocked out I go into a deeper dream layer?”
Nathan’s words echoed off the indifferent checkered tiles.
He wiped the dust from his arms and thighs and pressed on into the dark. “Does this count as R.E.M. sleep or am I going to wake up cranky?”
There were no answers from the corridor.
Nathan hastened his pace as he passed beneath a taxidermy gallery mounted on the wall. He tried to ignore the shadows the antlers cast, but they seemed to stretch.
A breeze wafted through the corridor setting all the furniture skirts aflutter. Goosebumps rose up Nathan’s biceps, his shoulders, and settle upon his neck. A long sheet arose to reveal the source of the cold spot: an open fireplace. The sheet pointed to the Nathan, detached from the wall, and glided over him. In the sheet’s place was a tall elliptical mirror. It had a big baroque frame that was all lion’s paws and golden laurels, like a family crest.
“Alas, a looking glass. I wonder what will happen if I gaze into it?”
Nathan neared the mirror. “So, should I start saying ‘Bloody Marry’ and see where that takes me?”
The mirror already had an answer. There was a silhouette standing beneath a dustsheet. Either it was a trick of the light or of the wind, but the silhouette appeared to be breathing. The goosebumps on Nathan’s neck ran down his arm and settled on his wrist.
He counted on his fingers. “3-2-1,” then spun on his heel.
A figure charged at him with a mallet. “Jump scare!” The figure shouted as she struck a brass gong.
For his part, Nathan didn’t flinch. He nodded, like a disappointed parent.
The Ghost of Horror Present looked to Nathan like a hipster Elvira: straight black bangs, lots of mascara, boots up to her knees, tight jeans, black halter top, and a black denim vest covered in enamel pins.
“They say people who don’t react to loud jarring noises might be psychopaths.”
“I’ve been getting that a lot.”
The Ghost of Horror Present dropped the mallet and gong into a pocket dimension beneath her vest and offered her hand. “Hello Nathan, I’m Leonora, the ghost of Christmas present.”
“You mean Halloween?”
Leonora shrugged. “I’m a millennial. I’ve got a lot side gigs.”
Nathan tried not to stare at Leonora’s chest, but she had more pins than a five-star general. She had the stickman from The Blair Witch Project, Pyramid head from Silent Hill, the killer sphere from Phantasm, and the puzzle box from Hellraiser. She even had the Necronomicon from Evil Deadwith a banner that read: READ BANNED BOOKS.
Curious Nathan turned around and tore the sheet off the figure he’d spotted in the mirror. Sure enough, it was a toned Greek sculpture with a leaf for a loincloth.
“Isn’t this all a little old school for the ghost of Halloween present? I’m surprised I’m not hearing the beat of a telltale heart through the floorboards.”
Leonora spun around appraising their surroundings. “Haven’t you heard? Everything old is new again.”
The back of her vest was a patchwork of portraits of the Universal monsters: the creature from the black lagoon, the phantom of the opera, the bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the mummy, Dracula. There was even a blank one for the invisible man.
Leonora raised her fingerless gloves to the ceiling. “Doesn’t all this Hammer Horror shit give you a nostalgia boner for the supernatural cinema of yore?”
She made a beeline for a buckling strip of wallpaper, got a good grip, and pried it free. Then she skipped over a row of shattered tiles, kicked one loose, and claimed it from the floor. She curled her hand back, spun, and hurled it like a discuss. It shattered a window.
Leonora pointed to her handywork. “Look at that matte painted moon and tell me you don’t want to write some shit about an ancient acropolis.”
Nathan looked toward the impossibly large lunar surface filling the window frame then back to Leonora to find she’d disappeared. “Alright Bat Woman.” He sighed, checked his watch, and counted on his fingers. “3-2-1…”
When he turned Leonora hit him with an airhorn. “Jump scare!”
Nathan didn’t jump so much as wince. A pendulum of hair fell into his brow and he took a moment to slick it back up. “I’m not going to lie. I’m digging on this atmosphere, but how’s a horror write supposed to carve out his niche when he’s stealing from the past?”
Leonora laid on her airhorn. “Re-re-remix!” Lightning flashed, confetti shot out in all directions, and plumes of smoke spewed into the room.
When Nathan looked back Leonora was at a turntable. She held a pair of headphones with one hand and worked the knobs with the other.
A dubstep drop, blew the dustcovers off a pair of monolithic speakers.
Leonora shouted. “You take the classics, play with people’s expectations, and put your own spin on them.”
Nathan could just make out the melody for Toccata and Fugue in D minorburied beneath a flurry of distorted bass tones. He plugged his ears. A flurry of shadows sped across the windows. Cracks spread throughout the ceiling. The chandelier shook, plunged toward the floor, and snagged on its chain.
Leonora pumped her fists to the beat. Lasers converged upon a mirror ball Nathan hadn’t noticed until then. Bats flew through the window, swarmed the speakers, and formed a pair of big brown tornados.
Nathan cupped his hands around his mouth. “It seems like we could do better than just adding a bunch of…”
Leonora had disappeared. So too had the commotion.
Nathan scanned the corridor for movement, then the furniture and the shadows beneath it. The support beams creaked. The house settled. An eerie wind blew through the window. Nathan cocked his ear toward the sound and raised a finger until he heard a wolf howling in the distance. “There it is.” He took the opportunity to roll his shoulders and stretch his forearms across his chest.
Nathan creaked his neck, cracked his knuckles, and counted down. “3…2…1…”
He shut his eyes, counted on his fingers, and braced himself, but still nothing.
“Alright Leonora. This is not my first rodeo.” He scanned his surroundings. “We already did the mirror thing, and the silhouettes beneath the dust covers. That just leaves…No. You wouldn’t be that tacky.”
Nathan turned to the suits of armor. One suit was not like the others. It was wielding its great sword high above its head, frozen in the middle of a killing stroke. Nathan neared the suit until he was standing beneath the blade’s trajectory.
“I’m going to assume this is like velociraptors. If one of you is in front of me then another is—”
Leonora struck Nathan with a taser. His muscles seized around the white hot surge in his side. Leonora hit him again and again and again. When she finally let up Nathan had collapsed into a ragdoll on the tile. The armor fell forward and the great sword came down upon his cranium.
THE GHOST OF HALLOWEEN YET TO COME
Nathan came to in an open grave. It was teaming with rainwater, knotted roots, and muck. It wreaked of worms and formaldehyde. He leaned forward and felt something hard and slick beneath his palms. He was floating atop a casket. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
Nathan dug into the dirt wall, grabbed a long rope of root, and pulled himself up with all the grace of Adam West’s Batman. Moments later he was back on the coffin. He tried to claw his way up the steep incline. He managed to get a foothold, felt the grass at the borders of the plot, and then he was back on the coffin with an avalanche of mud coming down on him.
The mudslide had exposed a second root system. This one weaved in and out of the dirt like stitching. Nathan climbed the handholds, pulled himself back up, and grabbed at fistfuls of grass until he was able to roll onto solid ground.
Thunder clapped and a fleeting glimpse of daylight shone through the surroundings. The landscape was dotted with statues: angels whose wingspan wrapped around their shoulders like overcoats, generals who watched over the cemetery from atop their monuments, and cherubs.
“Fuck all you all motherfuckers.” Nathan said with what the little indignation he could muster.
He then turned his attention to the headstone. “Alright, let’s peep on this epitaph.”
He crawled around the rim of the open grave, careful not to slide back in. As for the headstone, it was tasteful, not too garish, not too small. The base was carpeted with red roses and for a moment Nathan felt appreciated, until he read was etched into the rock:
HERE LIES STEPHEN KING: THE LAST GREAT HORROR AUTHOR.
Nathan stared at the text perplexed. “Shouldn’t there be a birthdate and death date? Maybe something about his wife?”
Lightning struck a redwood not far from the headstone. Cinders shot through the air like fireworks. The blast had cleaved the trunk down the center and set the standing side aflame. As the blaze spread it outlined a towering figure. Its hooded face regarded Nathan with cold indifference. Its tattered robes fluttered against the breeze. Nathan scanned the frayed edges and spotted, not legs, but bunches of squirming appendages: snakes, centipedes, and other vermin. Nathan panned down the figure’s skirt and saw tentacles writhing in the grass.
Nathan ran for it. Monuments, mausoleums, and markers passed in a blur, and as he ran those granite shapes grew taller until they rose above the tree line. The headstones became standing stones and the fire that had consumed the redwood had found its way back into the sky. The storm clouds turned volcanic and the rain turned to ash.
Overwhelmed Nathan lost sight of his footing, snagged his toe and hit the prairie face first, then he just kept hitting it as he rolled downhill. He was still sliding when he’d settled onto his belly. That’s when he saw the gapping maw of the open grave ready to swallow him up again. He dug into the grass, but didn’t stop until he was teetering on the edge of the pit.
That’s when Nathan felt the tentacle wrap around his ankle, slice through his pantleg, and latch onto his calf. Nathan burrowed into prairie down to his elbows, but the dirt did him no favors. “Fuck you, Lovecraft. You racist piece of—”
One good tug from the tentacle and all the dirt Nathan was hanging onto came right down with him.
When Nathan landed he did not feel the smooth lid of coffin, but a writhing mass of angry limbs, poking and prodding at all his tender bits until they got a good grip. A tentacle slid around Nathan’s brow. Its suckers pulsed with hunger. The long grey appendage looped around Nathan’s eyes, ears, and nose, before tunneling into his mouth.
Despite the pressure on his eardrums Nathan could still hear the precise moment his skull cracked open.
Nathan awoke on his side kissing a puddle of his own sick. He’d thrown up in the middle of the night. Had he slept on his back he’d have asphyxiated and died. Now little Pazuzu was rubbing his whiskers in the mess. Nathan mustered the strength to crawl out from under the table, scoop the cat up, and sequester him in the bedroom.
Nathan was relieved to be alive, but he had no plan to throw the windows open and ask some young man what day it was. He knew damn well it was October 27thand he needed to shampoo the carpet and wash away the stench of his poor life decisions.
When Nathan was finally refreshed he elected to go out. Now he didn’t gift any turkeys to any needy families, nor did he donate to any charities. He was too broke to play benefactor and there were no Tiny Tims anywhere in his life. Instead, he took a notepad down to the local bakery and let his train of thought careen down the tracks.
Nathan listed the qualities someone had to possess for him care about them. He thought long and hard about what qualities made people sympathetic, fascinating, or praiseworthy. He thought about his friends, family, and coworkers. He dreamt up crazy situations that might reveal the full measure of their character.
Then he listed the horror topes he’d always hated and imagined some fresh spins on them. He analyzed the dream about Stephen King’s headstone and came up with a concept worth riffing on:
What if a horror legend had the ability to navigate the collective unconscious and syphon inspiration from his competition? What if one of those authors found out and tried to retaliate? What would happen if the horror legend summoned demons to stop him?
Nathan gripped the page as if to rip it out. “That is such batshit stupid concept… It’d be a shame to let it go to waste.”
He turned the page, wrote the title: NOVELMANCER, and then he wrote some more.