Why I love Halloween

It’s that season of the year again!

Last night I went out for a walk in my neighborhood around 7 pm. (We’ve had an unseasonably warm spell here in the Cincinnati area.) I didn’t take into account how quickly the dusk settles in this late in the year. I was only halfway out when it suddenly became very…well, dark.

I therefore walked back to my house in the dark. The houses around me were festooned with various Halloween decorations: skulls, black cats, and even some cool Halloween projector lights.

I love Halloween. For me, Halloween is the time when we mortals come to terms with two constants of human existence: a.) the unknown, and b.) the inevitability of death.

The celebration of Halloween is an act of acceptance. Our lives will always contain tragedy, dissatisfactions, and uncertainty. But we cannot allow ourselves to paralyzed by fear…or by sadness.

Halloween is a time when we laugh at death, and embrace our mortality.

A few years ago, I wrote a Halloween novel called 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN. This nostalgic, coming-of-age horror tale is set on Halloween night, 1980. Check it out here.

New extended preview: ‘The Consultant’

I’ve added an extended preview here on the site for The Consultant.

The Consultant is the story of an American marketing consultant who takes a business trip to Osaka, Japan, and talks to the wrong woman in a bar.

One thing leads to another, and he ends up in North Korea.

The story is loosely (I emphasize loosely) based on real events.

The North Korean government has carried out targeted kidnapping campaigns of civilians over the years. Most of the known targets have been South Koreans and Japanese. But there is no reason why an American couldn’t be the target of such a kidnapping. This novel explores that scenario.

The Consultant is a good read for Tom Clancy fans who also like James Clavell…or James Clavell fans who also like a bit of action.

View the preview here!
View THE CONSULTANT on Amazon!

20th-century horrors in Indiana!

Here’s the first chapter of The Rockland Horror 3

Chapter One

It was a chilly, wet day in March 1917, and thirty-year-old Joe Cullen was overdue for a smoke break.

Joe shot a quick glance over his shoulder. He wanted to make sure that his foreman was nowhere in sight.

Joe was relieved to find himself completely alone on the tree-lined road. All around him, there was nothing but the silent woods. And the light, cold moisture falling from the leaden sky.

Well, almost nothing. There was the Briggs House, too.

This thought made him smile self-consciously. Country people and their superstitions. Never mind that Joe was as country as they came. He also read books, dagnabbit. He had knowledge of the broader world.

He bent and laid his shovel down in the long, sallow, late-winter grass at the edge of the road. The road itself was muddy, owing to the wet weather. He did not want the handle of his shovel to get muddy, too. He still had a lot of work to do with that shovel before quitting time.

That done, he stood, removed his gloves, and slipped them into the lower left side pocket of his coat. From the lower right side pocket he removed a box of Lucky Strikes and a box of wooden matches.

Joe was wearing a broad-rimmed hat, a treated canvas raincoat, and heavy boots. The overhanging tree branches—though still bare of leaves—also caught some of the light rainfall. But when you were working outside in weather like this for an entire day, it was impossible to avoid either the dampness or the chill.

Today’s precipitation was not a hard, driving rain; but it was a steady, unrelenting spittle that varied between mist and drizzle. Fireplace weather, Joe’s mother would have said.

But there would be no fireplace for Joe today—not until quitting time, at least; and that was still several hours away.


Joe was currently employed by the Indiana Department of Transportation, a brand-new state agency created by the Indiana Highway Act of two years prior. Joe was part of a crew that had been charged with preparing Washington Hill Road for paving.

At present, the road was all packed earth and gravel. It was literally the same road that had been used in the pioneer days. Washington Hill Road turned to mud every springtime, or even during a midsummer thunderstorm. That might have been suitable for the age of the horse. It would not do for the age of the automobile.

As he paused to light his cigarette—cupping both the cigarette and the match in his hands to shield them against the moisture in the air—Joe allowed himself a look at the Victorian mansion that was impossible to miss at this point on Washington Hill Road.

The Briggs House rose above him in the distance. The decrepit monolith appeared old-fashioned and dark, even when silhouetted against today’s cloudy gray sky.

The Briggs House was on the left side of the road. It stood at the top end of a long, winding, overgrown private lane that rose to a promontory. When the trees were bare, the roofline of the mansion could be partially glimpsed far below Washington Hill, Joe knew. He was a lifelong resident of Rockland, Indiana.

He smiled to himself, and took a drag on his cigarette. Joe Cullen knew all about the Briggs House—the murders, the whispered stories of witchcraft and necromancy. Much of that was pure fabrication, and at least half of it was pure nonsense.

Joe Cullen had no way of knowing that within a matter of minutes, he would hold an entirely changed attitude about the Briggs House.

About The Rockland Horror saga:

“A terrifying multigenerational horror saga set in a cursed house in Indiana. Zombies, evil spirits, and supernatural monsters!”

View The Rockland Horror saga on Amazon!

Read it in Kindle Unlimited!

The Rockland Horror saga is FREE to read in Amazon Kindle Unlimited!

Horror on Kindle Unlimited

Kindle Unlimited is Amazon’s main subscription ebook reading program. Kindle Unlimited gives you virtually unlimited (hence the name) reading privileges to a wide variety of titles, for a low monthly fee.

Not every title listed on Amazon is enrolled in Kindle Unlimited. Literary fiction from the big New York publishing houses generally is not included. You likely won’t find the latest Jonathan Franzen novel in Kindle Unlimited anytime in the near future.

Kindle Unlimited is heavy on genre fiction. This means: romance, space opera, LitRPG, fantasy, and horror.

I have a fair number of horror titles in Kindle Unlimited. I write supernatural horror, in the tradition of Peter Straub, H.P. Lovecraft, Bentley Little and E.F. Benson.

And yes (I know this sounds a bit pretentious) Stephen King. I have achieved barely a gazillionth fraction of King’s commercial success. But his formula of character-based, fast-moving horror is always on my mind when I sit down to write a horror tale.

What kind of horror don’t I write? If you want splatterpunk, or “extreme” horror (aka “torture porn”), then you should skip my books and stories. I have no interest in writing horror fiction that is endlessly grim and/or sadistic. My horror fiction is more akin to the campfire ghost story.

Below are the horror titles that I presently have enrolled in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. This means that you can read them for free if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber.

To view one of these titles on Amazon, simply click on the image of any book, or any hyperlink below.

(Don’t have a Kindle Unlimited membership? Click here.)

Eleven Miles of Night

A college student takes a walk down the most haunted road in rural Ohio for a cash prize. This is a “haunted road” story, basically a tale of being stuck on a cursed country road at night. Ghosts, evil spirits, and hellhounds abound. Also, an evil witch that inhabits a covered bridge.

12 Hours of Halloween

A coming-of-age story set on Halloween night, 1980. This is a tale of supernatural events in the American suburb. A classic horror tale for Generation X.

Revolutionary Ghosts

The year is 1976, and the Headless Horseman rides again. This coming-of-age horror thriller is sure to please readers who appreciate character-based supernatural fiction with lots of twists and turns.

The basic idea is: the ghosts of American history coming back to haunt Middle America in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial. (And yes, I’m old enough to remember the Bicentennial, although I was rather young at the time.)

Luk Thep

In early 2016, I read an article in The Economist about the luk thep “spirit dolls” of Thailand.

Manufactured and sold in Thailand, these are factory-made dolls with a unique sales point: each doll is supposedly infused with the spirit of a young child that passed prematurely.

The luk thep are intended to bring comfort to their owners. (They are marketed to childless women.) To me, though, the whole idea sounded rather macabre.

And I couldn’t help thinking: what if one of the dolls was infused with a child spirit that wasn’t very nice? What if that same doll ended up in the possession of an American woman who happened to visit Thailand on a business trip? Luk Thep is a fast-paced ghost tale that spans two continents.

The Rockland Horror saga

Spanning a nearly 140-year period from 1882 to 2020, The Rockland Horror is a series about dark events at a cursed house in rural Indiana.

Hay Moon & Other Stories: Sixteen modern tales of horror and suspense

This was my first short story collection. Although all of these stories contain speculative elements, there is quite a range in plot and subject matter. In this collection you’ll find vampire and ghost stories, but also a few crime stories with a “twist”. Oh, and there are also several “creature feature” stories that are kind of fun.

I Know George Washington and Other Stories: Five Dark Tales

Five dark tales of murder, hauntings, and the undead, set in locations from Tennessee to Mexico.

The Headless Horseman returns

How I wrote a horror novel called Revolutionary Ghosts


Can an ordinary teenager defeat the Headless Horseman, and a host of other vengeful spirits from America’s revolutionary past?

The big idea

I love history, and I love supernatural horror tales.  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was therefore always one of my favorite short stories. This classic tale by Washington Irving describes how a Hessian artillery officer terrorized the young American republic several decades after his death.

The Hessian was decapitated by a Continental Army cannonball at the Battle of White Plains, New York, on October 28, 1776. According to some historical accounts, a Hessian artillery officer really did meet such an end at the Battle of White Plains. I’ve read several books about warfare in the 1700s and through the Age of Napoleon. Armies in those days obviously did not have access to machine guns, flamethrowers, and the like. But those 18th-century cannons could inflict some horrific forms of death, decapitation among them.

I was first exposed to the “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” via the 1949 Disney film of the same name. The Disney adaptation was already close to 30 years old, but still popular, when I saw it as a kid sometime during the 1970s.

Headless Horsemen from around the world

While doing a bit of research for Revolutionary Ghosts, I discovered that the Headless Horseman is a folklore motif that reappears in various cultures throughout the world.

In Irish folklore, the dullahan or dulachán (“dark man”) is a headless, demonic fairy that rides a horse through the countryside at night. The dullahan carries his head under his arm. When the dullahan stops riding, someone dies.

Scottish folklore includes a tale about a headless horseman named Ewen. Ewen was  beheaded when he lost a clan battle at Glen Cainnir on the Isle of Mull. His death prevented him from becoming a chieftain. He roams the hills at night, seeking to reclaim his right to rule.

Finally, in English folklore, there is the 14th century epic poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. After Gawain kills the green knight in living form (by beheading him) the knight lifts his head, rides off, and challenges Gawain to a rematch the following year.

But Revolutionary Ghosts is focused on the Headless Horseman of American lore: the headless horseman who chased Ichabod Crane through the New York countryside in the mid-1790s. 

The Headless Horseman isn’t the only historical spirit to stir up trouble in the novel. John André, the executed British spy, makes an appearance, too. (John André was a real historical figure.)

I also created the character of Marie Trumbull, a Loyalist whom the Continental Army sentenced to death for betraying her country’s secrets to the British. But Marie managed to slit her own throat while still in her cell, thereby cheating the hangman. Marie Trumbull was a dark-haired beauty in life. In death, she appears as a desiccated, reanimated corpse. She carries the blade that she used to take her own life, all those years ago.

Oh, and Revolutionary Ghosts also has an army of spectral Hessian soldiers. I had a lot of fun with them!

The Spirit of ’76

Most of the novel is set in the summer of 1976. An Ohio teenager, Steve Wagner, begins to sense that something strange is going on near his home. There are slime-covered hoofprints in the grass. There are unusual sounds on the road at night. People are disappearing.

Steve gradually comes to an awareness of what is going on….But can he convince anyone else, and stop the Headless Horseman, before it’s too late?

I decided to set the novel in 1976 for a number of reasons. First of all, this was the year of the American Bicentennial. The “Spirit of ’76 was everywhere in 1976. That created an obvious tie-in with the American Revolution.

Nineteen seventy-six was also a year in which Vietnam, Watergate, and the turmoil of the 1960s were all recent memories. The mid-1970s were a time of national anxiety and pessimism (kind of like now). The economy was not good. This was the era of energy crises and stagflation.

Reading the reader reviews of Revolutionary Ghosts, I am flattered to get appreciative remarks from people who were themselves about the same age as the main character in 1976:

“…I am 62 years old now and 1976 being the year I graduated high school, I remember it pretty well. Everything the main character mentions (except the ghostly stuff), I lived through and remember. So that was an added bonus for me.”

“I’m 2 years younger than the main character so I could really relate to almost every thing about him.”

I’m actually a bit younger than the main character. In 1976 I was eight years old. But as regular readers of this blog will know, I’m nostalgic by nature. I haven’t forgotten the 1970s or the 1980s, because I still spend a lot of time in those decades.

If you like the 1970s, you’ll find plenty of nostalgic nuggets in Revolutionary Ghosts, like Bicentennial Quarters, and the McDonald’s Arctic Orange Shakes of 1976.


Also, there’s something spooky about the past, just because it is the past. As L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

For me, 1976 is a year I can clearly remember. And yet—it is shrouded in a certain haziness. There wasn’t nearly as much technology. Many aspects of daily life were more “primitive” then.

It isn’t at all difficult to believe that during that long-ago summer, the Headless Horseman might have come back from the dead to terrorize the American heartland…


My last Halloween (the true story)

How egg-throwing teenage boys ruined my last trick-or-treat

My novel 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN is a supernatural coming-of-age tale about three young friends who endure the trials of a 12-hour curse on Halloween night, 1980. To survive the night, they must battle vampires, animated trees, and the horrific creature known as the “head collector”.

12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN is one of the most autobiographical novels I’ve ever written. Like the characters in the novel, I was 12 years old in October 1980. The suburban Cincinnati, Ohio setting is very similar to the one in which I spent my formative years.

That said, the main character of the story, Jeff Schaeffer, doesn’t have much in common with me, or with the boy I was more than 40 years ago. And while I had a group of friends, neither Leah nor Bobby is an exact representation of anyone I knew back then.

Oh, and I never did battle with any of the supernatural creatures that appear in the book.

Here is another point of fabrication: I went on my last trick-or-treat in 1979, not in 1980.

I set 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN in 1980 because some of the themes I wanted to explore required an adolescent perspective; and I was twelve in 1980, not in 1979.

But like the characters in the novel, I was somewhat torn (as were the adults around me) about the appropriate age for giving up the trick-or-treat ritual.

In the culture of those times, you were generally okay for trick-or-treating up to age ten or eleven. But once you reached junior high, well, people would give you funny looks if you showed up at their door on October 31st, asking for candy. And once you reached high school, you were definitely too old.


In 1979, therefore, my friend Ken and I decided to go out for “one last Halloween”, kind of like the characters in the novel. (Ken, being a year older than me, actually did turn twelve that year.)

I wore a prefabbed costume from Kmart. I don’t even remember what it was. (I seem to recall a green skeleton, but I can’t be sure.) Ken, however, had one of the coolest Halloween costumes I’ve ever seen—before or since.

This was the early Star Wars era, and every kid was a fan. Ken was no exception. His mother made for him a very elaborate imperial stormtrooper costume. This was not something store-bought. She made the whole thing from scratch. It was amazing.

Halloween 1979 in the Cincinnati area provided a clear, pleasantly cool autumn night. We set out a little after 6 p.m., and everything went fine…at first. Then we crossed paths with a group of teenage boys, a hot rod, and some eggs.


One thing I’ve noticed about the 21st-century: suburban teenagers are less mischievous than they used to be.

This could be because of helicopter parenting. How much trouble can you get into when your parents are tracking your movements on a smart phone app? Kids today are also very absorbed in virtual worlds of different kinds.

In the late 1970s, however, adolescent entertainment consisted of whatever was on network television (cable TV didn’t become common until about 1982), books, and other young people.

And since there were no parental tracking apps, your parents typically had only a vague sense of your whereabouts at any given moment.

In this atmosphere of fewer ready-made distractions and much less supervision, there were more motives and opportunities for getting into trouble. And plenty of teenage boys jumped at the chance.


This particular group of teenage boys, riding around on Halloween night 1979, had decided that it would be fun to throw eggs at the kids who were still young enough to go trick-or-treating.

They were obviously selecting their victims at random. I will retroactively blame Ken for our being singled out. His solid white stormtrooper outfit really did make him a target.

The car—it must have been a Dodge Charger or a Trans Am—slowed down as it approached. Ken and I had no time to assess the situation, let alone take evasive action. Then someone in the passenger seat threw some white objects at us via their rolled-down window.

The car roared away before we realized what had happened: they had pelted us with eggs.

Ken had been walking closest to the road, and he was a mess. The stormtrooper outfit his mother had so painstakingly crafted was now smeared with dripping yellow egg yolk.

Some of the eggs had splattered on me, too…though not very much.

After that, we decided to call it an early night. Neither one of us wanted to walk around dressed like an omelette.

At least the boys didn’t throw rotten eggs at us, I would think later.


My guess is that the egg-throwing foray was a spur-of-the-moment thing for the boys.

Speaking of the teenage boys: I never learned their identities. Whoever they were, though, they would all be pushing sixty in 2021.


So that was how my last Halloween went, in 1979 and not in 1980. By Halloween 1980, I decided for myself that I had had enough of Halloween and trick-or-treat. It was time to let that childhood ritual go.

Halloween, nevertheless, retains a strong grip on my imagination. 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN was therefore a very fun book to write as an adult.

***View 12 HOURS OF HALLOWEEN on Amazon***

Happy Labor Day 2021

Today begins the Labor Day holiday weekend of 2021.

Labor Day is, on one hand, the unofficial end of  summer. The way school years were configured in my youth (the 1980s), Labor Day was usually the first weekend of the new academic year. (None of that back-to-school-in-mid-August nonsense for us.)

And in my hometown of Cincinnati, Labor Day weekend has long meant the WEBN fireworks. 

But there’s a history behind Labor Day as well, which is summarized in the History Channel video at the top of this page. You should give that a watch. 


Finally, Labor Day is the beginning of the final third of the calendar year. For me, this means getting serious about accomplishing my goals for the year. There are only four months remaining, after all.

This has been a reasonably productive year for me so far. I have published the first three books of The Rockland Horror series, and at least two more will come out before year’s end. I’m also working on a World War II historical suspense series that will show up on Amazon this fall.

I am also planning some more content for this blog. While I am mainly focused on writing books, I enjoy having a platform out here in the world, that anyone can stumble upon. So look for some more essays and posts after September 7. Maybe some more short stories, too. 

Have a happy Labor Day weekend, everyone!

‘The Rockland Horror 3’ is out!

The third installment of The Rockland Horror saga is now available on Amazon:

The 20th century holds new horrors for Rockland, Indiana!

The year is 1917. In faraway Europe, the Great War rages on. The world waits anxiously to see if U.S. President Woodrow Wilson will take America into the conflict.

By now, the events of 1882 are fading into the stuff of legend, for all but the town of Rockland’s oldest residents.

But a few still remember what happened. Continue reading “‘The Rockland Horror 3’ is out!”

An August hot spell

As regular readers will know, I’m an Ohioan.

One thing about living in the American Midwest: you get to experience the worst of all possible weather—from snowstorms to blistering heat.

And natural disasters, too. We have tornadoes; and yes, we have earthquakes, also. The only significant weather hazard we’re missing is the hurricane.

The Ohio warm season lasts from the beginning of May through the first half of October. (We almost always get an early October heat wave, sometime after the initial autumn cool-down.)

Those five and a half months are not hot all the way through. There a cool spells and rainy spells. But we often have entire weeks in which the weather turns positively Venusian; and this is one of those weeks. Daytime highs in the 90s, with heat indexes in the triple digits.

Hot weather is not my proverbial cup of tea. I’m already looking forward to crisp late October nights, and the frosty morning lawns of early November. But for the next week, more or less, Ohio is stuck in the dog days of summer.

Above:  a Midwestern earthquake that I remember well. I was getting ready to leave for work, when I heard the gutters on my house rattling. At the time, I thought I was delusional. Later that morning, I heard about the earthquake . 

‘The Maze’: a parallel world fantasy in Kindle Unlimited

Just a quick book note here: The Maze is now available again to readers in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program. You can also purchase the ebook outright, or get the paperback version. 

This is a modern-day “portal”, or parallel world fantasy.

The Maze was originally published in 2013. It had good reviews, but there were a few changes I wanted to make. The book is now back on Amazon with an updated cover.

Charlie Watts (1941 – 2021)

The Rolling Stones started making music a few years before I was born, and they remain active now. And I’m in my 50s.

I was not part of the 1960s generation (I’m a Gen Xer); and I never loved the Rolling Stones as much as Rush, Def Leppard, or even Aerosmith. But I’ve been hearing their music since as long as I can remember, and much of it is quite good.

Rolling Stones songs and movie soundtracks seem to go together. There must be a rule somewhere, stating that every movie about Vietnam must use either “Satisfaction” or “Paint it Black” somewhere in the soundtrack. But it isn’t just Vietnam movies. Fallen, a 1995 horror film starring Denzel Washington, uses both “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Time is On My Side” in its soundtrack.

Almost everyone knows at least a few Rolling Stone songs, and most of us have a favorite one. (My person favorite is “Mixed Emotions”, released in 1989.)

The band’s drummer, Charlie Watts, passed away today in London. Watts always stuck out in the band. He was the one member of the group who didn’t look like a rock star, with his quiet, unassuming manner and formal dress (by rock band standards, anyway).

He seems to have been a nice fellow, and he played a good beat for many years. Charlie Watts, 80, RIP.

Jack Reacher and short fiction

I’ve just finished listening to Lee Child’s Three More Jack Reacher Novellas: Too Much Time, Small Wars, Not a Drill and Bonus Jack Reacher Stories.

I’m a longtime fan of the Jack Reacher series. Jack Reacher, along with Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, is one of my favorite characters in crime fiction.

I have sometimes felt, though, that full-length Jack Reacher novels have a tendency to become a bit repetitive. There are (sometimes) a few too many reversals and fight scenes, as if Lee Child is padding out the story.

And that may very well be the case. Authors in traditional publishing are required to write novels to a certain length, usually within a tolerance of a few thousand words. This is a result of the pricing and distribution scheme that has become part of the traditional publishing business model.

Jack Reacher stories are far more fast-paced (and much less repetitive) in the shorter format of the novella/short story. The tales in this collection contain no fluff, no wasted words, or excessive, looping plot circles. If you’re already a Jack Reacher fan, you’ll love this collection. If you’re new to Jack Reacher, this might be a good place to start.

At present, this collection seems to be audio-only. I’m not sure why that is. Dick Hill does a decent job on the narration, but—for me, at least—Scott Brick remains the gold standard of audiobook narrators.

Anyway, if you like audiobooks and crime stories, you might want to check this one out.

**As I have noted before, I listen to a lot of audiobooks during the summer lawn-mowing season. Nothing breaks up the monotony of yard work like an audiobook. I listen to audiobooks that I’ve downloaded onto my phone, via my 3M WorkTunes headset.

I personally recommend this hearing protector headset for anyone, as it syncs easily with my iPhone, and provides great hearing protection. (Also, you can get it on Amazon.)

‘We Hunt Together’: my new favorite TV crime drama

I’ve had good luck with British dramas in recent years. I am (slightly) embarrassed to admit that Downton Abbey was one of my all-time favorite shows, even though it was little more than a soap opera set in Edwardian England.

I was therefore willing to give We Hunt Together (from BBC Studios) a try.

Despite the odd title and even odder opening theme, what you have here is a tightly plotted, richly charactered crime drama.

Two investigators (Babou Ceesay and Eve Myles) track a murderous couple (Hermione Corfield and Dipo Ola).

The acting in this series is top-notch all the way around. Kudos, especially, to Hermione Corfield for her portrayal of Frederica “Freddy” Lane, the series’ youthful femme fatale.

I am watching We Hunt Together on Showtime in the United States. Availability of the series may vary, depending on your location.

***Also available on DVD from Amazon***

Horror movie notes: ‘Unearth’, ‘Sinister’, and ‘Fallen’

I’ve caught a few more horror movies of late: one relatively new, two a bit older. Here are my very quick reviews, given in reverse chronological order of the dates of the films:

Unearth (2020)

Billed as “a fracking horror story”, Unearth is a horror film that purports to combine postmodern anxieties (economic malaise, climate change) with a horror plot reminiscent of Alien or The Thing.

The basic setup is this: a struggling farmer in western Pennsylvania allows an energy firm to excavate for natural gas on his land. Bad things are awakened from underground. Hijinks ensue.

There was a lot that could have been done with this idea. Most of the movie, though, was wasted on repetitive emotional drama, and several sexual subplots that seemed tacked-on and pointless.

Unearth did feature a strong performance from 80s horror film star Adrienne Barbeau. But the writers of Creepshow (1982), The Fog (1980), and the aforementioned The Thing (1982) gave Barbeau much better movies to work with.

Sinister (2012)

Ethan Hawke stars as a true crime writer who moves into a house where a family of four was recently murdered, in the hope that the home’s atmosphere will inspire a bestselling book.

The writer soon finds that the house contains more than just memories and dark ambiance, though. The events of the family’s murder are still very much present, as is a force behind a string of similar murders that have occurred since the 1960s.

Sinister has multiple plot holes. And—as is too often the case in horror movies—the characters do things that people of otherwise ordinary intelligence and judgement simply wouldn’t do. I would also have done the ending differently, had it been my movie.

That said, Sinister has some genuinely scary moments. This film has a vibe that is downright creepy, and you’ll be thinking about it for a while after the action stops. I did, anyway.

Fallen (1998)

This is one of Denzel Washington’s best films. (And Denzel Washington has made a lot of good movies.)

In Fallen, Washington plays detective John Hobbes, a Philadelphia Police Detective who is stalking a demonic entity known as Azazel.

Fallen is more of a supernatural thriller film than a horror movie. There is a recognizable narrative structure to the film (something definitely missing from Unearth), and the main character has agency and initiative (a factor missing from Sinister).

Fallen is probably not a movie that is going to keep you awake at night. But it will keep you guessing, and you’ll remember it. I saw Fallen for the first time about twenty years ago, and I very much enjoyed my second viewing.

As a bonus, there are strong secondary role performances from Elias Koteas and the late James Gandolfini (1961-2013), both of whom later went on to larger roles. (Both Koteas and Gandolfini also appeared in The Sopranos, with Gandolfini in the starring role.)

***Shop for horror movies on Amazon***

‘Billy Summers’? Yes, I’ll probably get around to reading it

A few of you have emailed to ask if I’ve yet read Stephen King’s latest novel, Billy Summers.

The short answer is: not yet.

Here’s the longer answer. I was a rabid Stephen King fan in the mid-1980s. I mean: rabid to the point where I spent a year (1984-5) devouring everything he’d written to that time, and reading virtually nothing else.

Then I read It in 1986, and I noticed a change in his narrative style. Let me explain.

King’s early novels—‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Carrie, Christine, The Dead Zone—are all written with a disciplined narrative style, and fast pacing. His first short story collection, Night Shift, includes some of the best short genre fiction ever written. Read “The Lawnmower Man”, “The Mangler”, or “Trucks”. There is not a single wasted word in any of these stories.

Then around It, King shifted to a much more verbose, more meandering style. I remember thinking at the time that It was about three hundred pages too long. That was probably me being generous. It was more live five hundred pages too long.

I have since struggled to finish some of Stephen King’s more recent books: 11/22/63, Doctor Sleep, The Outsider. I was unable to finish Under the Dome, Cell, Dreamcatcher, or Lisey’s Story.

Right now, I’m midway through his 2020 novella collection, If It Bleeds. I won’t lie: I’m struggling with this one, too.

No matter what I think, Stephen King is still one of the most commercially successful writers in history. That means something.

A writer can sometimes catch a wave simply because a particular editor or publishing company really likes his or her work. Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City on Fire, was published to great acclaim in 2015, and at a large price tag for the publisher. But the book received very mixed reviews from critics and readers alike, the consensus being that it was over-written and overly focused on literary navel-gazing. Hallberg hasn’t published much since then.

But that’s one flash in the pan. Stephen King, by contrast, has been commercially successful since 1974. I was in the first grade in 1974. I’m now in my fifties. That puts his long career in perspective.

The simple explanation is that Stephen King’s work has changed since the mid-1980s. He’s acknowledged that himself. I prefer the earlier Stephen King. I know plenty of people who prefer his later stuff.

Moreover, I am no longer the same reader that I was in 1984 or 1986. I was in my teens then; and I’m now creeping toward late middle age. Perhaps Stephen King and I have simply grown apart.

King still pleasantly surprises me once in a while. I did like Joyland, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and Mr. Mercedes. I enjoyed all of the stories in Everything’s Eventual, and at least half of the stories in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. I also found Full Dark, No Stars to be quite entertaining.

So I am by no means “done” with Stephen King. The early reviews for Billy Summers are strong, and I’m intrigued by the book’s premise: a troubled Iraq War veteran turned hitman, carrying out one final assassination.

I’ll almost certainly get around to reading Billy Summers…eventually. But right now, there are just too many other titles on my TBR list.