Ghosts, goblins, and ghouls. Horror-movie marathons. Children in costumes going door-to-door for treats. Yup, it’s that time of year again…Halloween!
When it came time for HD-I to select someone to do a holiday-themed story for us, the choice was obvious. Who better to get us in the mood than Mr. Al Sarrantonio, whose name has become synonymous with Halloween. We’re privileged to debut a new Orangefield story for our readers this month, complete with an accompanying illustration by Keith Minnion. So dig your favorite candy out of the bowl, sit back in the recliner, and prepare for a visit from the Dark Lord Samhain….as we give to you Al Sarrantonio’s “All Souls’ Day”.
Stick around after the main feature to read Al’s thoughts regarding Halloween and why it’s such a magical time of year.
Orangefield seen from the air by the hawk:
A thin ribbon of highway to the East, a shivering long snake now seen, now lost between tall stands of tight pine trees and conifers and oaks. The trees were colorful now, dressed like costumers in red, yellow, brown. To the West were mountains, a string of high hills like low jagged teeth against the landscape. The tops were dusted bare white. And then there was the town directly below.
The hawk made a wide lazy gyre, looking down, and dropped lower. The spire of a church, white-crossed, and next to it a parking lot. Something small moved on the tarmac, and for a moment the hawk was distracted. A rodent? No, only a piece of balled-up paper, pushed by the wind. The hawk resumed his inventory. Another tall building, with a dirty flat roof but stately-looking brick on the sides. Steps leading up to it. The town hall, flanked by a long block of shops broken by side streets. The hawk knew those side streets – good hunting, there, mice and the occasional rat or treeless squirrel. A gas station across the road, next to it a small motel, its L shape squaring off its small asphalt parking lot.
Farther down, the Orangefield Hotel, nearly as old as the town, its flat roof old and cracked, but its red-bricked façade, recently restored, as beautiful as the day it opened.
The hawk flew on, its wing tips barely fluttering as it soared on the westerly breeze.
More shops – a coffee shop, a toy store, a fairly new wine shop where a furniture refinisher used to be.
A single-level Borders bookstore on the corner, butted up against a flower shop and then a women’s dress shop.
Directly across the street, an outdoor clothier, one of many pubs, a shop featuring gewgaws and glass pieces.
A swoop to the right again, and then the new construction, a row of old warehouses turned into condominiums, the new clean square windows glinting in the sun.
And then Ranier Park.
The hawk circled, dropped even lower. What it sought was here, though it was neither rodent nor bird. The trees thickened, then spread out again to a flat expanse of fairground where even now the Pumpkin Days festival tents were being erected: new colors this year, a huge green-and-white striper flanked by two red-and-white striped tents. Gone were the orange-and-white tents of other years.
The hawk had no opinion, but caught at the moment a slight updraft, drifting upward as the workers below stopped to look up at his passage.
The trees thickened again, a stand of pines giving way to sturdy oaks.
The hawk dropped suddenly, folding his wings sleekly against his body as if in attack.
The ground, he noted with disinterest, was covered in this spot with fallen acorns.
He landed in a bare spot, folded his wings, and waited.
Not for long: almost immediately the black cape swirled into his razor-sharp vision and settled in front of him.
The paste-white face with its black hollows where eyes should be, regarded him with amusement, and the red slit of a mouth smiled thinly.
“Of all the creatures on Earth,” Samhain, the Lord of the Dead, said, his thin voice filled with a kind of mirth, “I enjoy the company of your own species only next to that of the humans. Like them you kill with impunity, but yours is a pure lust for death. It is as built into your little brain as if you were a machine.”
The hawk’s black eyes stared unblinking, and he rustled his feathers – perhaps in pleasure at the remark?
“Here,” Samhain said, “is who you must help me kill.”
Tom Winters hated his name, and he hated Orangefield.
Damned woman, he thought, if only your damned family had been born somewhere else. Anywhere else.
He lifted his axe, pretending for the twentieth time that he was bringing it down on his wife’s skull instead of a chunk of firewood.
The axe hit square, split the log in half; Winters immediately picked up one of the fallen halves and split it again.
Again he thought of his wife’s head.
Something blotted out the sun and he looked up, dropping the axe to his side and wiping at his brow with his other hand.
The thing came down at him like a bullet – and a moment later he was screaming, dropping the axe and holding both hands over his eyes, abruptly blind, and the thing was now on his face, all claws and beak, driving at him like a piston, pecking deep into his ears and tearing at his cheeks and chin and then he felt the beast’s entire head, beak-first, driving into his mouth and he was suddenly choking and the thing, the beak, was down into his throat and he fought for breath which he no longer had—
Cathy Berrins was looking forward to the Pumpkin Days festival. Her fifth grade class had done a banner: WELCOME AUTUMN! outlined in orange crepe paper, and she herself had painted, at home, a beautiful pumpkin in finger paints, swirls of black and of course orange, with glowing yellow in the triangular eye holes and, for a change, a round nose and straight mouth with no teeth. She thought it looked grand.
I wish I’d always lived in Orangefield! she thought as she closed the front door of her home, adjusting the rolled-up poster board with the painted pumpkin on it under the crook of her left arm. The day was bright steel blue, a perfect autumn morning, with no clouds except for the clouds of breath that came out of her mouth when she breathed.
She turned right, waving to her friend Pat Wiggins, who had lived here all her life and was already standing at the bus stop, a half block ahead.
There came a sound and Cathy turned to see the bus, a little early, just braking with a squeal around the corner behind her.
She broke into a run, ducking beneath the branches of the low-hanging oaks that lined the street.
“Hurry! You’ll miss the bus!” Pat shouted in encouragement.
There was a sudden sharp sting at the back of Cathy’s head.
She turned to see something large and covered in feathers just alighting on her shoulder.
Its claws felt like knives driving into her.
“Ohhh!” she breathed, dropping her poster board, which opened, face-up, on the sidewalk.
She fell on her back, and saw the huge bird hovering above her, its black, blank eyes unreadable.
There were screams in her ears, perhaps her own.
And then nothing.
Jerry Reese wiped sweat from his brow, even though the day was chilly. He was thinking not of Halloween or Orangefield or anything else, just getting to his next beer.
The cooler next to him was empty, had been for a half hour. But he had another fourteen fence posts to put up before he could take a break, and knew old man Matheson was watching him, one way or another.
Old fucker’s got radar in his head, Jerry thought.
Good day, for the middle of Autumn. Sun was warm, and the wash of air through the trees made it much more pleasant than August.
Not a bad place to be, for an itinerant worker who hated to be anyplace very long.
Beer, he thought.
He could almost taste the Budweiser on his lips, down his throat.
That’s what I do, live from Bud to Bud.
He laughed, rammed the fence post digger into the ground, striking a rock.
Then the ground shifted slightly to the left, freed the digger, and his hole was complete.
Good day! he thought.
A shadow passed over the sun – he looked up and saw nothing but a black streak in his peripheral vision.
There was a thumping sound to his right, and he looked down.
A huge bird was sitting on his empty cooler, regarding him with cold black eyes.
“Who the fuck are you?” Jerry said, the first words he had uttered out loud all day.
The gigantic bird folded its wings tight against its flanks, continuing to look at him.
Without thinking, half-drunk, Jerry swung his post hole digger at the creature, miraculously catching it on the side of the head.
The bird fell off the cooler and lay inert.
Jerry hit it again, a high arcing shot from above.
“One dead bird!” Jerry said out loud, and barked a short laugh. “Teach you to fuck with my beer cooler.”
The hawk’s crushed head looked up at him with one ebony eye, popped from its socket, still cold.
Jerry slid the toe of his boot under the carcass, and flipped the dead creature away from the cooler.
He opened the cooler, reached into the cold ice water, and drew out a last beer, miraculously hidden under the ice, popped the top and drank half of it down.
He picked up the post hole digger and continued working.
Like I said: one dead bird.
Samhain waited impatiently in his woods. Overhead, through a gap in the nude-fingered branches, the October moon, nearly full, danced whitely among scudding clouds. A breeze had risen, and the air was colder, just as it should be on Halloween.
Samhain’s cape moved open, closed, as his black eyes stared unblinking at the spot where the bird should have returned by now with its prizes.
He knew, suddenly, that letting the hawk do his work was a mistake.
After all, he thought, it’s only an animal. A mostly sentient and interesting one – but, still, not human.
And now it was too late to recruit a human to finish the job.
He would have to do it himself.
He nearly sighed with displeasure – he had long since hoped to relinquish this part of his job to others.
As if reading his mind, The Dark One’s thoughts entered his own.
“Where is my tribute?” the Dark One said. “Three lives every Halloween?”
“Soon,” Samhain answered.
“Lazy, are we?” the Dark One replied. There was no humor in the voice, only an immensity of cold emptiness.
“There are two, and one yet to go,” Samhain said.
“Before midnight, Samhain. Don’t disappoint me.”
“Have I ever?”
In answer there was instant, frigid silence, and Samhain smiled grimly.
The beer cooler was now completely empty.
Jerry hadn’t even remembered passing out – he was supposed to be in Finnegan’s Bar by now, continuing the evening’s drinking. He angled his watch up at the moon – and at that point it went behind a cloud. But he thought he saw the small hand pointed between the eleven and twelve.
Late, he thought. Dammit. The bastards’ll drink up all the beer without me.
He dropped the lid of the cooler and something freezing brushed across his face – the fabric of a coat.
Someone was standing there in front of him.
“What the f--?” Jerry said.
“You killed the hawk?” a low voice said. It sounded hollow, like it was not used to speaking.
“You bet your ass I did,” Jerry said, backing away from the caped thing, which had a funny pale face and thin lips that looked like they were a red line of lipstick. “Got in my way, and was fucking with my beer.”
And the eyes looked hollow.
He kept backing away, and tripped over something -- the post hole digger. He went down but moved his hand around and took hold of the tool.
The cape moved up and over him, and he brandished the digger like a weapon in front of him.
“I killed that goddamned bird and I’ll kill you too!”
The cape moved up and over him, and drew very close.
It became the night, the world.
Jerry dropped the post hole digger and gave a single muffled scream.
This time, Samhain did sigh.
The night moved quietly from October 31st to November 1st.
All Saints’ Day, Samhain considered. Followed by All Souls’ Day. The day of the faithful departed.
The moon was clear of clouds suddenly, and gave a silver-white sheen to the field, which was dotted with a neat line of empty fence post holes.
Samhain hovered over the dead hawk, and something like pity rose in his hollow breast.
He reached a pale, long-fingered white hand down and cradled the bird.
It felt light, insubstantial.
He sought to lift it, then let it drop.
“Faithful departed,” he whispered.
Horror Drive-In: Welcome to the Drive-In, Al. We're excited to have you here.
I'll start with an obvious question given our theme this month: What is it about Halloween that keeps drawing you back?
Al Sarrantonio: So many things: it's the turning of the seasons, the vestiges of the Harvest when Summer gives up and looks to cold Winter coming. The colors orange and black really are great together. It's a magical time and scary, too -- the only Holiday that dovetails those two aspects of fantasy so well. It's a children's holiday based on death. How weird is that? The possibilities for a writer are endless.
HD-I: Your Halloween stories take place in the fictitious town of Orangefield. Is the location drawn from places you've lived over the years, or is it purely from your imagination?
AS: Orangefield is one-third Saratoga, NY, and two-thirds my imagination. I needed a place in upstate New York, and the Adirondack region is one of the most beautiful areas in the entire U.S.A. So I moved Saratoga up farther into that area, borrowed the look of its courthouse, main street, things like that, and tacked everything else onto it that I felt like. It's a very small city, or very large town, whatever you prefer. There's a Park in the real Saratoga, but my Ranier Park is right out of my own head. I've said before: when you create a town you get to be the mayor, the sheriff, the dogcatcher, the police chief -- you get to be everything. How could I resist?
HD-I: Keith Minnion has been tasked with illustrating many of your Halloween tales. What's it been like to collaborate with Keith and to see your fiction come alive?
AS: Keith Minnion has "gotten" my work from the very beginning. He never fails to astound. His pencil interiors for my Cemetery Dance books like MOONBANE are stunning. I work with him whenever I can.
HD-I: Do you have any additional Halloween projects coming up this month?
AS: The day I write this (October 21st) I'm doing a Halloween-themed blog radio interview at Diabolical Radio, which I'm sure will be up by the holiday. Should be great fun. Am hoping to see my anthology HALLOWEEN: NEW POEMS from Cemetery Dance out soon. I also recently wrote an introduction to what looks to be a really nice Halloween-themed anthology, Harvest Hill, from Graveside Tales. My Orangefield trilogy from Dorchester always seems to pick up in sales this time of year.
HD-I: One last Halloween question: Do you do anything special to celebrate the holiday?
AS: Hide under the bed! (Just kidding.) This year we'll be spending it with family and friends. We live in a neighborhood laid out in a circle so we get tons of kids since it's a safe place for folks in the area to wrangle their trick-or-treaters.
HD-I: When I think of Al Sarrantonio, short stories immediately come to mind. Not only do I feel you're one of the most original short story writers out there, but you also have a good eye when it comes to editing anthologies (999 is one of my favorites of all-time). Two-part question: First, are you still writing a lot of short fiction and will we see another collection down the road? Second, we know that HALLOWEEN: NEW POEMS is coming soon from Cemetery Dance. Are there any other anthologies you're working on?
AS: Been writing more short fiction lately than in the last few years. I do see another collection down the road -- as a matter of fact it's three-quarters done. And besides the Halloween poetry collection, I'm editing a monster original anthology with Neil Gaiman, titled STORIES, which will be out from Morrow next July. Big book, big names. Also, I've edited another original hardcover dark fiction anthology titled PORTENTS, which will be announced in a month or two. I'm hoping it will become a series, like Charlie Grant's SHADOWS. PORTENTS will have nineteen new stories from the likes of Joe Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, Gene Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates, Jeffrey Ford, Chris Fowler and many others.
HD-I: Last, as alluded to in the previous question, you've worn many hats over the years -- writer, editor, critic. Is there anything you haven't accomplished yet that you still hope to get to?
AS: Clean my office. And this time I'm not kidding.
HD-I: Thanks so much for your time, Al!