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STINGY JACK, OL’ SCRATCH, AND A HEAD FULL OF FIRE
Stingy Jack, Ol’ Scratch, and a Head Full of Fire
Jack shuffled into the cottage, his grimy hat gripped in both blackened hands, and stopped just past the door.
His sister Elspeth rose from stoking the fire and huffed at the sight of him, hoisting her skirt to stalk past him and out, slamming the door behind.
Jack lay his hat over the wooden peg on the wall, and took a single, miserly step forward, watching the old woman -who now seemed almost like a stranger to him- for signs of wakefulness. It would be a relief if she didn’t rouse, if she never roused, for she hadn’t offered a single kind or comforting word in many years, not since he was a teenager. Despite circumstances, Jack did not expect a change.
But family and neighbors lingered outside, and none would spare a charitable thought or word for him if he spent any less than a good halved hour tearfully apologizing to the poor old woman, and swearing his renewed, unshakable devotion to the path of The Straight and The Narrow.
Tears were not to be, alas, but the time he could manage, so long as the old woman slept most of it away.
Jack looked at the fireplace, stayed well back from it. Elspeth had almost always taken care of the fires –she’d had to be after all, for Jack hated fire and avoided it like leprosy, even when he inherited the blacksmith business from his uncle. Thanks be to God he had inherited his uncle’s helper, Colm as well.
But hearing the low eerie squeal of steam escaping from the young birch logs, he shook his head vigorously. That sound was why he only allowed Colm to use wood left drying for a season or so. It was bad enough he had to be around fire all day. Screaming fire was insufferable.
His gaze rose to the silver cup on the mantle and he immediately wondered what value it held. Then a hoarse cough from behind had him cringing.
He turned and saw that his mother’s eyes, watery and fogged, were open and focused on him. Her frail hand rose from her side, weakly wriggling fingers of summons.
He hoped for the regretful and forgiving love of the dying, but when he extended his hand, she clutched with such harsh strength and speed it gave him a start.
He leaned toward her, but just a few inches. Dead and dying bodies sent him queasy. Even mere mice in the mouths of the village cats -whose eyes gone wild and distant with some fugue caused by killing, their ears pointed backward to detect would-be thieves- made him feel like a wee lad in a vast dark forest.
His old mum, already interred under a mound of quilts, managed a string of clear and concise words. “Jacky. Ye make my heart hurt.”
“It’s gonna be all right, mum.” Jack whispered. “Just get your rest and ye’ll be back on-“
“Ye’ll never change.” She coughed again, a droplet splatting Jack’s cheek, making him revulse. “An’ I can’t protect ye any longer! I’m bound fer glory…”
“No mum. Ye’re gonna be fine.”
She ignored him, drawing her other hand from under the heavy quilts, a trying labor. In it was her cross, the silver one for which she had saved and saved, to buy from a silversmith the next town over when she was just a lass. She had worn it all these years, hanging it on one bit of string after another as they wore thin.
She held it up in trembling hands, on the opposite side of the bed from where Jack stood; the side pushed against the wall. Jack had to reach across her to take it, holding his breath as he did for fear he would inhale some essence of her ancient illness.
As she released it, thoughts of its value danced in his mind, and of potential buyers.
“Keep it with ye, boy,” his mother rasped. “Once I’m gone, ye won’t have my prayers to scare away the evils of the world.”
“Don’t say that, M-“
She sat up so fast it sent a thin rod of ice through his spine, and had him falling onto his ass as if kicked by a mule. Her eyes reflected the fire, and in so doing, brought Jack’s very worst memory to the fore. “That’s yer only hope, boy!” she bellowed, then fell back to the bed and gave off a hiss like that of the birch logs crumbling to ash in the fireplace.
Jack closed his eyes and shook his head till it hurt, trying to break apart that image against the inside of his head. But the vigil watchers would have heard the cry; they would be crashing in, and it wouldn’t look good for him to be cowering on the floor, so he quickly rose and approached her, looking for the rise of the quilt over her chest.
There was none. He reached out to shake her gently, and realized his calloused hands were shaking.
Then the door burst open, and Elspeth was pushing past him.
“Mother!?” She frantically patted the corpse’s pale cheeks, shook the scrawny, purple-veined hands, put her ear to the old woman’s ears. More watchers came in to crowd past him, and Jack suddenly realized he was in the presence of a dead body. He dashed out of the cottage, roughly pushing past the vigil keepers as he went to the big Ash tree behind the chicken coop and vomited his gorge of beef, turnip hearts and very much beer.
Happy 4th of July holiday weekend! To celebrate we are giving away free short stories all weekend. Check out the latest over on my Facebook page or CLICK on the covers below.
MISCHIEF NIGHT- I’m usually up on all the latest horror releases, and had a good heads up on this decent slasher. However it turns out there are TWO films called MISCHIEF NIGHT that were released within a year of each other. I’d seen the trailer for the other one, which made for an unsettling experience based on unmet expectations. In this one, a blind teen gets the See No Evil treatment when ax-wielding masked men target her on the night before Halloween.
ALL HALLOWS EVE- Anthology flicks are the in thing right now, probably thanks to the V/H/S films, and TRICK R TREAT before them. This one makes up for its low budget and simple script with sheer gory audacity.
MAY- Angela Bettis is one of horror’s beloved beauties, thanks in large part to this bleak, funny and often sweet character study from Lucky McKee. Some script elements seem out of place at times, but this only adds the its unsettling overall feel.
SHADOW PEOPLE- Yet another film that shares its title. This is a 2008, no budget DTV offering with a cast of unknowns. I have to admit, I did not get past the first few minutes. I try not to be a budget snob, but the problem here is not the lack of funds, but apparently, a lack of talent. The “shadow people” phenomenon is one that interests me to no end, but I saw nothing here that could hold a suspension of disbelief for me.
THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN- Ryuhei Kitamura brings his manic visual style to one of Clive Barker’s most grisly short stories, expanding and realizing the story quite fittingly. A great balance of gore, atmosphere and suspense.
STAY ALIVE- We’ve all seen horror and sci-fi films that rely overly on CGI effects to the point you feel you’re being asked to make a great leap of imagination to accept their veracity. This underrated studio effort turns that problem around nicely by making the antagonist an entity which realizes its manifestation in the “real” world through a cursed videogame. Okay, so the teens are a bit stereotypical–but teens sort of are, so….
THIS IS BLACK METAL- After the fascinating UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US, I’ve been on the search for more great docs about black metal, but unfortunately this is not one. Mostly just interviews with bands and fans interspersed with some live performance footage but not presented in any sort of groundbreaking or even entertaining manner. It’s the usual questions about touring that receive the same general answers. Come to think of it, most of these bands don’t really qualify as black metal, so there’s that.
FUN SIZE- One of my internet haters recently referred to me as a “manchild,” and when I found myself smiling at this cookie cutter Nickelodeon vehicle for one of its TV stars, I realized it was a hard point to argue. It’s a good one for the fam, the only racy moments presented as the common rites of passage that they are. Also, Supernatural fans will be glad to see The Prophet Kevin himself, Osric Chau, in a fun supporting role.
THE PROPHECY- This 90s anomaly, starring Virginia Madsen, Elias Koteas, and Chris Walken at his most eccentric as the pissed-off angel Gabriel, held up pretty well when I re-visited it recently, and apparently scored well enough at the box office to spawn three sequels, which I have yet to see. Watch this space.
DON’T LOOK IN THE CELLAR- The keywords “abandoned asylum” drew me in, even as the one star rating shouted its warning. The luxury of streaming affords us the ability to simply move on to something else if the first few minutes of a film don’t at least try to meet our expectations, such as when two girls dressed like slutty nurses can walk into an asylum and simply enter padded (with crumpled paper, BTW) rooms at will. I don’t think I need to elaborate.
RITUAL- Not to be confused with the more recent film by the same name (apparently a common theme lately) this 2002 effort boasts the Tales From The Crypt umbrella, though it offers no appearance by the Crypt Keeper, nor is it based on any of that beloved comic’s stories. Despite some gore and nudity it feels kind of like a Lifetime version of Wes Craven’s The Serpent and The Rainbow.
BARRIO TALES- Another low budget anthology offering twisty tales of terror as told by a wisecracking Mexican chap to a pair of entitled white boys. All the gringos get what they deserve and if you accept the small scope of the production you’ll have a good time.
SCARY OR DIE- Still another anthology of short horror tales, wrapped by a nowhere segment featuring an unseen ghoul clicking around on the titular website. If you think the trope of evil clowns has been overdone, you might be pleasantly surprised by the central tale. The story of a Korean businessman attempting to be a good samaritan to a damsel in distress does its job as well, but the others seem mostly like filler to make this feature length.
5 STARS ***** This is a great Halloween short, it has all the elements of a great, seasonal read… the spooky local Urban Legend, trick-or-treaters, ghosts, possible severed body parts, and TRICKS!! Read the full review TRICK by Patrick C. Greene.
Back to the Shadows by Patrick C. Greene
At six twenty-two p.m., Pooky yelped and leapt at the door, even before the doorbell rang.
Rising from her rocker and her scrapbook project, Mrs. Edith Tucker shushed the Pomeranian. Answering the door for the first gaggle of trick or treaters, she expressed suitable delight at the pirate, the football player, the home-made mummy, and the two identical suburban princesses from some reality program that she had never watched. Pooky seemed satisfied, for the nonce, that there was no threat, and pranced back to his post at the foot of the old armchair. READ MORE…Halloween Flash Fiction for FREE.
HELL HOUSE is a documentary chronicling the efforts of a Texas church to put on a Christian-themed haunted attraction designed to bring its visitors to the arms of Jesus.
I find that cliche’d qualifying statement necessary because, A, I tend to be vocal in my criticisms of certain Christian groups, and, B, these criticisms, coupled with my love of dark and subversive art forms, might easily create the impression that I’m anti-Christian.
My Christian friends are generally patient and tolerant with me, more often than not exemplifying the teachings of their namesake. I applaud and appreciate most of their beliefs, even if I don’t necessarily share them.
I recently watched two similarly themed documentaries more or less back-to-back, allowing me a good opportunity to compare and contrast their content.
The first, THE AMERICAN SCREAM, takes us to a neat middle class Massachusetts town, where a trio of home owners, including Victor Barriteau and family, devote their properties, as well as a large portion of their energies and finances, toward creating spectacular home/yard haunts.
Both are presented without external narration, more or less allowing the participants to tell their own stories via a combination of interviews and shadowing, as the respective haunts are built essentially from the ground up.
Being a self-professed Halloween enthusiast, who sometimes marvels at the intensity of my own infatuation, I didn’t like seeing Barriteau’s daughter and wife searching for diplomatic ways to relate their own experiences trying to live in the shadow of their patriarch’s obsession. Even less did I like seeing very young children being exposed to Hell House’s bludgeoning presentation of what they’ve more or less arbitrarily decided are the world’s ills.
I can still remember a time when churches put on a “regular” haunted house, where “secular” ghosts and ghouls jumped out at you, and dudes with neutered chainsaws chased you to the parking lot, or at least until they got winded. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but those particular churches at least, seemed more interested in bringing together the community and sprinkling in a little fun between Sundays, whereas these days, the urging of parishioners to vote anti-gay or bemoan their wide-spread imaginary persecution seems higher on the agenda.
Hell House concerns itself with an annual event of the same name; an elaborate, if not particularly imaginative, spookhouse walkthrough consisting of a series of rooms in which scenarios depicting the consequences of various sins such as homosexuality, abortion, drugs, going to raves, etcetera are presented. My bias is already showing, I suppose.
They spend a little time with a good cross section of its cast, from proudly virginal teens, to a hulking-but-gentle family man in the position of raising a family on his own in the wake of a bitter divorce. It’s on this individual level that a viewer might find some angle with which to relate. We are given a glimpse of the auditions, set building, scene-writing, scenario brainstorming (during which the use of fear as a soul-saving tool is heavily emphasized,) proselytizing, and ultimately the event itself.
Apparently, this particular Hell House is the original; the model for thousands of similar “Bible-based” haunted houses staged throughout the country every fall in response to the more mainstream haunted attractions that have become an industry of their own, or a faith-based alternative to the demonic influences presented by your local neighborhood haunt in The American Scream.
If I may conjecture based my own, admittedly limited research, and some of the banter in ‘House’, it seems that at some point around two decades ago, a faction of charlatans popped up claiming to have had harrowing experiences with “The O-cult,” and “Sat’nists,” that included child (and adult) sacrifice, orgies with demons, a shadow government of devil worshipers, a gay agenda to turn everybody else gay, legitimization of pedophilia (now there’s an irony), the blasphemous movement to treat women as people, ad nauseum.
Halloween was at the top of the list among the many “gateways” leading to devlitry, and ultimately, hell itself. With the introduction of this line of “reason,” churches gave up the traditional haunted house business–until, of course, the advent of Hell House, and the chance to exercise the age-old tradition of taking something deemed “secular” and re-inventing it as a Christian tradition, presumably to keep the youth interested, much like “MegaLife” T-shirts, or the Westboro Church singing their own version of Ozzy’s Crazy Train, or indeed–Halloween itself.
A few of the other obvious differences in the two documentaries:
Hell House charges its patrons Seven dollars a head (absolutely NO REFUNDS), while the home haunts of The American Scream are free of charge.
To the builders and set dressers of House, a Star of David is interchangeable with a so-called “Satanic” pentagram-as long as it’s red.
The behind-the-scenes crew of the Hell House sit in a large control room complete with video monitors of each sin scenario, where they issue commands to the overseers, much like God himself communicating to his angels. This directing team, including the pastor, are not above angrily barking orders at their ‘lieutenants.’
Meanwhile in Massachusetts, our trio of intrepid amateur haunters and their families are out among the masses, essaying good-natured “boos” and sharing smiles and fellowship, if I may use that word, with their community.
And in the end, Barriteau’s dedication seems to have paid off with poignant, karmic beauty that makes me proud of and for him. Meanwhile, the architects of Hell House seem likely to remain, ironically, in the hell of staging their own lurid live action torture porn show, for autumns eternal.