The Walk Home.

“From ghoulies and ghosties

And long-leggedy beasties

And things that go bump in the night

Good Lord, deliver us!” – Scottish saying.

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Thirty scary memories from my past have led to this Halloween post. I had to choose one last memory to leave everyone before they set off into the night to celebrate the holiday.

Just remember: No matter where you go, you have to come home at some point. And at some point, you’re going to end up alone in the dark.

In junior high, I remember dreaming I was solving a crime like Sherlock Holmes. I was leaving an investigation with the realization I was dealing with a vampire. At that moment, my dream froze as a beautiful illustration. In the picture, I was walking between two clumps of trees between my house and the neighbors’ house. Hidden in the trees, fangs at the ready, was a vampire. The moment was frozen in time, as was my character’s (my?) doom.

Months later, I had to walk the same path in the dark. I checked carefully and, even though the vampire wasn’t there, the vampire WAS there.

Wherever you go tonight, whoever you’re with, you will be alone in the dark tonight. The things you know are not real will become real again, like it or not.

Be ready.

Happy Halloween.

-Axel

No One EVER Made It All The Way Through.

You waited outside the door in the middle, and then walked up stairs to get the haunted house. Nope. Not intimidating at all.

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When my parents gave me permission to visit the local Denver Jaycees Haunted House, I was shocked.

Hadn’t they heard the rumors? Supposedly there was a guy throwing around a real chainsaw. Supposedly they made you hold a real cow eye before they let you out. When I waited in line, I prepared myself for the moment when I had to hold the cow eye in my hand. It shook me to my core.

I was a little miffed there was no cow-eye holding anywhere within the haunted house. I didn’t really WANT to hold a cow-eye, but after I spent so long preparing to hold a cow-eye, it seemed anticlimactic that there was no cow-eye to be held.

Also, our pastor was one of the monsters inside the haunted house. Recognizing him removed all fear from the trip as quickly as if they turned on the lights.

At middle school, when kids described the haunted house, it was clear they were more interested in spreading the legend than telling the truth. I enjoyed the haunted house a lot, but I didn’t remember watching a guy shrink and run into a small door on the ceiling.

I think the greatest haunted house would be a haunted house where people were hypnotized right after walking into the darkness and told every horrible thing they heard and every thing they dreaded while waiting in line had already happened to them, just like they knew it would.

It would be the equivalent of the urban legend of the haunted house too scary to survive, documented here on snopes.com.

If you’ve heard a tall tale about a haunted house, why not share it in the comments section of this post? You don’t have to say if you believed the story or not. We’ll make our own assumptions.

-Axel

You Can Trust GARFIELD, Right?

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In the 80s, we tight-rolled our jeans and we loved us some Garfield. Garfield EVERYWHERE. Garfield in the comics, Garfield on your TV, Garfield stuffed animals on your bed. . . When the book orders came in at school, half of the kids got Garfield books.

When commercials began advertising a Garfield’s Halloween Adventure, well, what could be better than that? Millions of us turned on our televisions to watch our favorite fat cat on our favorite holiday

Years later, we survivors still bear the scars. My wife and I both share this fear. We re-watch the special from bed most Halloweens, with all of the lights out. I may be imagining thing, but I swear she holds me just a little tighter when Garfield reaches the end of his trick-or-treating journey.
The opening moments of Garfield’s Halloween Adventure are bland and corny. Things get creepier when Garfield and Odie start trick-or-treating. When they end up in an old house on an island, things get real. The ghosts who come from them are so clearly bent on serious murderizing they’re ALMOST scarier than the old man who warns the cat and dog about the ghosts’ curse.

When The AV Club listed scary episodes of not-so-scary shows, Garfield’s Halloween Adventure was listed first.

It makes me wish Dora the Explorer would drop the gloves and terrify some children this year.

-Axel

Slimy Aliens Are NOT Indoor Pets.

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As an adult, imagine being outside at night. A slimy, screaming thing bleats at you and crashes around in the bushes. Does it seem like a good idea to bring this thing into your home?

Now I know, you’ve all seen E.T. and you know Elliott did the right thing by befriending a lost little alien.

This is the exception that proves the rule. Most of the time, bringing slimy beasties into your home results in, at very least, a series of painful, preventative shots. If the odds are not in your favor, something claws its way through your chest.

When I saw E.T., I was very young and I was in the theater. My parents were sympathetic to my fear and suffering, and tried to help me find ways of avoiding a meltdown. At one point, I faced away from the the screen but swore I could still see E.T.’s image reflected on the glass outside the projectionist’s booth (note: I couldn’t).

Somehow, I survived the film. When I figured out how magically wonderfully E.T. really was, I felt ashamed of my earlier fear. I tried to convince my entire family I actually loved E.T. Whenever I saw anything related to the film, and thanks to the power of Spielberg I was always seeing something related to E.T., I would pretend I loved the little bastard.

I didn’t. He’s creepy. And powerful. I’m still cautious.

I met Dee Wallace at a Crypticon and mentioned my fear of E.T. She confirmed other people had shared this fear with her, but she stated she never understood why.

I now suspect E.T. was waiting in her room, hiding in the towels, ready to jump out and bleat while kicking her if she violated the Code of Silence.

Be careful when allowing powerful, slimy things in your house. I stand by this.

-Axel

Read the Book!

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“I know, I know. Read the book.”

If you picture a person badgering someone with ghost stories and weird facts until the listener simply HAS to go out and order an expensive set of books to satisfy their curiosity, you and I used to watch the same shows.

Each commercial teased viewers with creepy bits of stories. Some involved ancient cultures and their amazing buildings. Some involved psychic connections without scientific explanation. Some of the stories came from beyond the grave.

The Time Life people present their sideshow of oddities as a perfect companion to the sensible world of business and professionalism in the late 80s. The message? Having a little bit of weirdness is a healthy part of life that you’ve been missing out on. Essentially, it’s the same idea used by Playboy and Maxim magazines, but it promotes cheap thrills through spookiness instead of sexiness.

People did buy these books. I know because I would watch for the in friends’ houses with a vigilance other children reserve for finding candy. If I were left alone with any of these books for any length of time, I would ignore whoever I was supposed to be playing with to read them. Then, I would pretend I wasn’t terrified as I stared at their digital clock that night, trying to work up the courage to go to the bathroom.

From what I remember of re-visiting these books in college, they were mostly based on superstitious folklore and friend of a friend stories. Still they were enough to get my imagination churning. I spent one night a little worried an angry Bigfoot might be peeking in my window. In Dinkytown, blocks away from the University of Minnesota Campus.

-Axel

Sweetums.

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Okay, I’m not scared of ALL Muppets or puppets. In fact, I would say I’m not scared of MOST Muppets and puppets.

Just the ones that look a little off in the eyes, like they might be ready to rip your face off.

The King of Scary Puppets is, of course, Sweetums.

Image copyright its owner.

If you read the link above, you’ll kindly note Sweetums was originally a good-guy devouring beast. I discovered Sweetums by listening to The Muppet Frog Prince on my previously-mentioned Dukes of Hazzard record player.

A very helpful coworker of mine, who delighted in tormenting me, discovered the film version of The Muppet Frog Prince was available on YouTube. In the privacy of my own home, I decided to face my fears and watch it.

Thanks to that viewing, I now remember I was just as scared of the witch with the creepy voice as I was Sweetums. Awesome. Good job, me.

Laugh if you like. My wife certainly does. However, remember this. We are all Big People because we were once Little Kids. You were once small, too. And when you were small, some tall thing made you aware of how vulnerable you were to being destroyed by something in the world of the Big People.

Under his big, furry mask, Sweetums is my version of the Bad Big Person, reminding me of the defenseless Little Kid inside me. You’ve got your own Big People fears. The question is: Do you know what mask they wear?

-Axel

Things Under Logs.

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The happiest playtimes of my childhood were spent in the woods beside our house. If you drove by those woods now, you wouldn’t know all of the wars fought  with boys ducking behind trees for cover before aiming their plastic guns at each other. There are no permanent marks from where sleds raced down slopes and tried to dodge stumps.

There are probably still a few reminders I was there. There are places where the course of the creek changed direction because we dammed it. There are still bits and pieces of forgotten forts.

When we were out there, if we needed to build a structure or just got bored and began investigating, we would pry up logs and rocks.

Underneath, you never knew what you could find. There might be fat old earthworms, or small silver things that darted. There might be webbed fungus or bulging mushrooms. The whole thing might be stained a color of rust.

Trying to break my habit of leaving my lunchbox at school for weeks at a time, my mother assigned me the chore of cleaning out the lunchbox Tupperware after it had been abandoned for far too long. It was a good plan. Opening the small orange container that used to hold applesauce, I was mortified was surprised to find small grey blobs of mold. They looked like a cross between an inner tube and the corpse of a small space alien. It smelled more like the corpse. Years later, when I read the Stephen King short story “Gray Matter,” I pictured the awfulness I found cleaning my lunchbox.

It’s all fun and games until it occurs to you. You’re ALWAYS surrounded by these nasty things. How many more things are out there and growing, slimy and quiet and just out of sight?

I imagine my wife feels the same way when a mouse darts out in front of her. Nothing nastier than small, silent things waiting for you in the dark.

-Axel

Show Me the Creeps!

Tom Savini and I at Crypticon.

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I finally got to meet Tom Savini at Crypticon this year.  I immediately asked if he had brought “Fluffy”, which is the name he gave to the insatiable eating machine from the fourth segment of the film Creepshow. He laughed and politely told he he thought the Fluffy prop worked well because they were careful to avoid showing it too often. Fluffy remained mysterious.

I was star-struck around the man who defined the look of gory horror special effects from the 70s on. I mostly babbled and nodded and tried not to sound ridiculous.

I wanted to tell him to take that back, because I knew in my heart Fluffy was real and he lived in a crate under stairs and popped out to eat people.

34 may be too old to believe in monsters, but Fluffy is different

After I cancelled a trip to the local haunted house in the sixth grade, I decided to stay at home to watch Creepshow. I taped it off late night network TV. I was convinced I was finally old enough to handle scary movies. The “Father’s Day” and “Something to Tide You Over” segments disturbed me, especially when Cheers Ted Danson faced drowning in the tide while buried up to his neck in sand.

Then, I got to “The Crate.” All you need to know about “The Crate” is that a small, furry thing with big teeth waits in a crate until the audience forgets he’s in there. Then he pops out, opens his mouth about a mile wide, and shreds any flesh he’s near.

That night, I slept on a chair to keep myself breathing through what was probably another fall bronchitis attack. This chair was positioned in the corner of the room. If you picture it, you’ll soon realize that leaves a small space between the back of the chair and the corner of the room.

You guessed it. Perfect Fluffy hiding place. I spent the night working up the courage to look behind me, sure with each peek thumb-sized teeth would crack through my skull while taking a bite out of my face.

It was a long night.

Later, while hanging out with a junior high friend, I brought Creepshow to a friend’s house. I was terrified, and he just fell asleep. When the movie was over, we switched to It and within five minutes he was horrified and I felt vindicated. Sorry, Pennywise. Fluffy got to me first. I’m spoken for.

Fluffy, I know you’re still out there. I know you’re hiding under staircases, waiting in dark places. I know you’ll eat my face off someday, and I’ve learned to accept this. I’ll give you a high-five when you finally do pounce at me, but you’ll probably just eat my hand, too.

-Axel

Burned, Then Back to the Flame.

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If you’ve been reading my Pegged Jean Nightmares updates, you’ve noticed most of my childhood fears came from books. This entry starts in the same vein, but it has a nice twist at the end.

I didn’t finish reading Monster Tales. The first two stories were scary enough. One story, “Wendigo’s Child,” earned my trust with a gentle tone and then shocked me senselessly by the time it was over. Coupled with excellent artwork, “Wendigo’s Child” kept me away from horror stories like college keggers make freshmen swear off drinking.

Which means, of course, I came back to scary stories. I started making serious attempts to write horror stories, starting in my junior year of high school.

One of my biggest goals, as a writer, was to earn a place in one of the Borderlands anthologies. If you’ve never read any of these books, and you enjoy horror fiction, you really ought to give them a try. I submitted a story to this anthology and waited.

I never heard from the anthology, and I frankly expect it’s because the story wasn’t that good. This is not false modesty; I would not submit this story to a market again.

The twist in the end? A prominent editor in the Borderlands series was also the author of “Wendigo’s Child.” Thomas F. Monteleone has been an amazing writer and editor for decades. His fearless ability to fight for his own writing, and the state of the genre as a whole, is well documented in his “The Mothers and Fathers Italian Association” columns, originally run in Cemetery Dance magazine.

I didn’t know this until a few weeks ago, when I was researching these posts. It’s perfect. I’ve gone from the frightened one to a writer trying to earn his place in the genre.

I don’t think Thomas F. Monteleone needs to worry about being challenged by my writing. The man’s career speaks for itself. I’m simply thankful I accepted the challenge of recreating, for someone else, the nervous terror he created for me.

-Axel

Picking My Vacation Book.

In celebration of 10 years of marriage, I am loading up my Kindle with travel reading. When I was a kid, picking up a new book to read during travel time was my favorite part of preparing to travel.

This year, my reading choices are even more important to me.

I am filling my Kindle with books by Tom Piccirilli for this trip.

Tom is an amazing writer, and I’ve been a fan of his for years. He blurs crime and horror seamlessly, and nobody handles dark subject material better. Somehow, even though he writes without flinching or pulling his punches, he makes awful human beings likeable.

Off the page, Tom is accessible and friendly. He’s helpful and friendly on Twitter. He uses his Facebook page to let people promote writing they admire and ask him questions about the business. Without him, I never would have found out what an excellent write Gillian Flynn is. He even answered a question I had about paying homage to Manly Wade Wellman in The Hoosecows. I tossed his first name into the last chapter as a subtle way to say thanks.

Right now, Tom is battling brain cancer. He’s a writer, so he’s going to need financial help from his fans to keep up on his bills. Brian Keene, another writer who’s friends with Tom, highlighted ways of helping out in this blog post.

I’m glad I can take Tom’s writing along with me on my trip. Crossroads Press is sending 100% of the money Tom’s way, and I get a Kindle filled with excellent writing.

Give yourself a Halloween treat, and stock up on Tom’s writing, too. You’re helping a great guy fight a crappy disease, and then you get to spend the winter reading great books. Everybody wins.

-Axel