Revolutionary Ghosts: Chapter 27

I made it to the McDonald’s on time—barely.

I walked in through the front door. As the six o’clock hour neared, the restaurant was doing a fair amount of business. 

This early, it was mostly families. Young parents with small children. McDonald’s wouldn’t release the Happy Meal for several more years, but the fast food chain was already a hit with children. 

When I walked back into the employees area, behind the customer counter, I didn’t see any unfamiliar faces—and certainly no one who could be Diane Parker.

I was about to take my place behind the open cash register—the one on the far right. But first I had to clock in. The time clock, with a card for each employee, was mounted on the wall, adjacent to the manager’s office. As I stepped past the office door, I saw Louis seated behind the desk. He was smoking a cigarette, as always. 

Louis saw me through the window in the center of the top half of the door. He waved me in.

I pantomimed punching my timecard. Louis nodded. I clocked in, so I would get credit for my time. Then I entered the smoke-filled office. 

Oh, another thing about 1976: Smoking in public was still more or less acceptable behavior. Most restaurant dining rooms had nonsmoking sections. But smokers lit up without hesitation in the common areas of offices, shopping malls, and bars. 

“Shut the door behind you,” Louis said.

I complied. The smoke inside the office was so thick it stung my eyes, filled my mouth and nostrils. 

I waved my hands about dramatically, as if I could drive the smoke away. “You’re going to stunt my growth with that stuff, Louis.”

Louis was a tall, gangly young man with black curly hair and a light complexion. He often developed inexplicable red blotches on his cheeks and neck. He wore thick glasses encased in heavy black frames.

Louis smiled impassively at my objection to the smoke. We had had this discussion before. 

“How tall are you?” he asked.

“Six-one.”

“Well, there you have it. You’ve already done all of your growing. And look at me: I’m six-three.”

“We could both get cancer.”

“You won’t get cancer. Have a seat, please.” He motioned to the visitor’s chair on the far side of the desk. “I wanted to go over next week’s schedule with you.” 

I sat down, coughing.

“Quit hamming it up. The smoke will make a man of you.”

“If that’s the case, then I should have a twelve-incher by the time I walk out of here.”

“Hey, I didn’t say that smoke is a miracle drug. Think of what you’re starting with. Anyway, take a look at the days and shifts I have you signed up for next week. Let me know if there’s any problem. But please don’t let there be any problems. If I have to redo your schedule, I have to redo everyone else’s schedule to fill in the gaps.”

He slid the paper across the desk to me and I gave it a quick look. I was scheduled to work almost every evening, as usual. 

Ray Smith had a diktat about day shifts: Day shifts were reserved for the older employees, especially the young married women with children. I think Ray Smith believed that he was doing his part to keep at least a handful of the local teenage population out of trouble, by keeping us at work at his restaurant during the witching hours. 

“I don’t see any problems,” I said, sliding the schedule back to him. “That will be fine.”

“I saw you looking around when you came in,” Louis said. “You were looking for Diane Parker, weren’t you?”

“Not really.” I said. 

“Bullshit. You were rubber-necking like you’d never seen the inside of a McDonald’s before. Anyway, Diane Parker is working a half shift tonight. She’ll be in at eight. Speaking of schedules: You’re good for closing up tonight, right?”

“Closing up” referred to the procedures that we went through after the conclusion of business hours. Some light cleaning, restocking supplies, etc. Everything that needed to be done so that the morning shift didn’t walk into a chaotic, messy restaurant. 

“Of course,” I said dutifully. I would leave the restaurant at 10:30 or 10:45 p.m. tonight, I estimated. 

“I guess you can go ahead and get to your cash register.” He glanced at his watch. “Did you get here at six?”

“Five minutes early, actually. Then you called me in here to talk.”

“Ah. Yes. Well, anyway.”

I could sense Louis hemming and hawing around. There was something else he wanted to talk to me about.

 

“Is something else on your mind, Louis?”

After pondering my question for perhaps five seconds, he said, “I’m not sure, really. I’ve been feeling a little…weird, of late.”

“‘Weird’? You’re always a little weird, Louis.”

“Come on. I’m being serious.”

“All right. What do you mean by ‘weird’? Are you sick?”

“No. I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong or weird about me. I feel like there’s something weird going on. Around here, I mean.”

It was as if Louis had read my thoughts, been privy to the events of the entire day: the hoofprints at the Pantry Shelf, the missing persons flyer, that shadow I saw in the hallway of my home…and then finally, the second set of hoofprints and the bizarre reaction of the  clerk at the Sunoco station.

“What about you, Steve? Have you noticed anything unusual of late?”

I could have confided in him in that moment. I could have told him about everything I had experienced since roughly noon. 

Unlike the clerk, Louis was certainly open to a speculative conversation.  

But I didn’t reveal anything to Louis. 

“I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary,” I said. “Not really. Not at all, now that I think of it.”

Why didn’t I meet Louis halfway, when he was clearly attempting to take me into his confidence? 

I wondered to myself—even then. 

My reasons had nothing to do with Louis. I don’t know if I was still in denial, but I was definitely in a state of resistance. This was the summer before my senior year of high school. I wanted it to be filled with fun. Pleasant memories. Maybe a new girlfriend.

I didn’t want to think about young people around my age going missing, possibly the victims of some horrible forces that I could barely imagine existing. I didn’t want to consider the notion that Harry Bailey’s article in Spooky American Tales might be anything more than the sensational ramblings of a pulp journalist. I didn’t want to contemplate the possible meaning of those two sets of hoofprints, the nasty gunk around their edges. 

“I’d better get to my cash register,” I said.

“Yes, I guess you’d better.”

I was standing up from the visitor’s chair when Louis gave me yet one more thing to think about. 

“Oh,” Louis said, “if you do happen to hit it off with Diane Parker, I recommend that you don’t take too long in making your move. What I mean is: Don’t let Keith Conway make his move first. You know how he is, after all.”

Chapter 28

Table of Contents

Why you should read Stephen King’s short story collection, Night Shift

I discovered Stephen King in 1984, when I serendipitously picked up a copy of ‘Salem’s Lot in my high school’s library.

I was immediately hooked. I set out to read everything King had published to that time–which was considerable, even in 1984.

My initial instinct was to focus on King’s novels. I read The Dead Zone and Cujo, The Shining, and (of course) The Stand.

Oh, yes, and Carrie. I liked Carrie a lot.

I was methodically working my way through the King oeuvre. I mostly did this by going through the books on the library shelves. (There was no Wikipedia, no Internet, in 1984, you’ll remember.) After I’d read all of the Stephen King novels I could find, I came across this other book: Night Shift.

Night Shift, I immediately discovered, was not another novel, but a collection of short stories.

I was a bit skeptical–as much as I already loved Stephen King. My experience with short stories thus far had been limited to assigned readings in my high school English class.

I had a teacher that year who was obsessed with Ernest Hemingway. He particularly loved “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. This is a story in which an old man has a drink in a cafe, and two waiters talk about him. Another Hemingway story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, consists of an oblique conversation about how an unmarried couple will handle an unwanted pregnancy.

Hemingway’s short stories bored me to tears. I couldn’t relate to the old man in the cafe in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. I was fifteen, after all. And at that age I hadn’t even had sex for the first time yet, so the roundabout conversation between the man and the woman in “Hills Like White Elephants” left me cold, too.

I’m a bit older now, and I’ve acquired some appreciation for the short stories of Hemingway. (Hemingway really isn’t the best choice for younger readers.) But at that time, my readings of literary short fiction had convinced me that short stories were little more than pretentious vignettes in which nothing much happens.

Nevertheless, I took a chance on Night Shift. I was glad I did.

Night Shift was–and still is–filled with short stories that grab you from the get-go. Stephen King’s forte, I had already discovered, was to transform the ordinary into something dark and magical. The stories in Night Shift accomplished this just as adroitly as King’s novels.

Take, for example, the story “I Know What You Need”. This is a story about a popular young woman named Elizabeth Rogan, who finds herself inexplicably attracted to a social misfit named Ed Hamner, Jr. As the title implies, Ed always seems to know what Elizabeth needs.

 




 

But there is a dark secret behind Ed Hamner’s intuition. What is it? I’m certainly not going to ruin “I Know What You Need” by telling you here.

The events in “I Know What You Need” take a supernatural turn, but the initial setup is something that everyone can relate to. You meet a stranger who simultaneously attracts you and arouses your suspicion. Who hasn’t been in that situation?

And then there is “Quitters, Inc.” This tale concerns an agency that uses highly unusual methods to help people stop smoking. There are no ghosts in this one; but King does present a unique spin on bad habits…and how difficult it is for us to give them up.

“Quitters, Inc.”, just like “I Know What You Need”, is immediately accessible. Everyone has struggled with a bad habit of some kind. That might not be smoking, in your case: Maybe it’s gambling, or overspending, or overeating, or watching Internet porn. Unless you’re a very unusual person, you have at least one bad habit. What would it take to get you to quit yours?

One of the best stories in this book is “Jerusalem’s Lot”, which is written in the same fictional universe as King’s novel, Salem’s Lot. Like the novel of a similar name, “Jerusalem’s Lot” has vampires. But these aren’t sissified, teenage girl heartthrob vampires, like you’ll find in Stephanie Meyer’s crime against vampire fiction, Twilight. These are real vampires: dark, evil, and very, very scary.

Some of the stories in Night Shift have been made into movies. I am here to tell you that the movies haven’t been nearly as good as Stephen King’s stories.

To cite just one example: Maximum Overdrive, which hit the theaters in 1986. The only good thing to come out of Maximum Overdrive was the AC/DC song, “Who Made Who”. The film adaptation of “Sometimes They Come Back”, made in 1991, is a little better. But not by much.

Read the stories. Ignore the Hollywood cash-grab film versions.

All of these stories involve matters of life and death (as all great fiction does); but not all of them contain elements of the macabre or the highly unusual. Two stories in particular, “The Woman in the Room”, and “The Last Rung on the Ladder” are stories that “could happen” without violating any of the rules of what we call “the real world”. Nevertheless, these stories involve real elements of suspense; and they both conclude with an emotional gut-punch.

 




 

I am a longtime Stephen King fan, but I am not an uncritical one. I haven’t hesitated to pan some of his clunkers. Cell, Lisey’s Story, and that horrid doorstop, Under the Dome, stand out among Stephen King’s turkeys. (Hey, the guy has been professionally writing since Richard Nixon was president; not all of his stuff can be brilliant.)

Even King himself admits that The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher leave much to be desired. I personally prefer the “old”(pre-1986, pre-It) Stephen King books to the newer ones. The Outsider (2018) has been on my bedside reading table for months now. The Outsider is a book worth reading, but not one that keeps me compulsively turning the pages.

But Night Shift is that good. These stories were all written when Stephen King was a relatively unknown writer, before he had become a “brand”. King wrote most of them for publication in men’s magazines. To put the matter crudely, these stories had to vie for male attention with photos of nude and scantily clad young women. They therefore had to hook readers from the very first paragraph.

And since they were originally written for magazine publication, not a word could be wasted. Every story in Night Shift is taut and economically written. There is no hint in Night Shift of the bloated literary style that would eventually emerge in the 850-page, indulgently overwritten 11/23/63.

I envy you, in a way, if you are new to Night Shift. I have read these stories so many times, that I now take the events in them for granted. I will always admire these tales, but I can no longer read them with virgin eyes.

But perhaps you can. If you haven’t read Night Shift, then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this book.

Revolutionary Ghosts, Chapter 16




My bedroom was a small, cramped affair, very typical of secondary bedrooms in postwar tract homes. There was barely enough room for a bed, a desk, a dresser, and a chest of drawers. The one selling point of the bedroom was the window over the bed. It afforded me a view of the big maple tree in the front yard, when I felt like looking at it.

I lay down on my bed and opened Spooky American Tales. I briefly considered reading about the Nevada silver mine or the Confederate cemetery in Georgia.

Instead I flipped back to page 84, to Harry Bailey’s article about the Headless Horseman.

After the opening paragraphs, Harry Bailey explained the historical background behind the legend of the Headless Horseman. While most everyone knew that the Headless Horseman was associated with the American Revolution, not everyone knew the particulars:

“Is the Headless Horseman a mere tale—a figment of fevered imaginations? Or is there some truth in the legend? Did the ghastly Horseman truly exist?

“And more to the point of our present concerns: Does the Horseman exist even now?

“I’ll leave those final judgments to you, my friends. 

“What is known for certain is that on October 28, 1776, around three thousand troops of the Continental Army met British and Hessian elements near White Plains, New York, on the field of battle. 

“This engagement is known in historical record as the Battle of White Plains. The Continentals were outnumbered nearly two to one. George Washington’s boys retreated, but not before they had inflicted an equal number of casualties on their British and Hessian enemies…”

By this point in my educational career, I had taken several American history courses. I knew who the Hessians were.

The Hessians were often referred to as mercenaries, and there was an element of truth in that. But they weren’t mercenaries, exactly, in the modern usage of that word.

In the 1700s, the country now known as Germany was still the Holy Roman Empire. It consisted of many small, semiautonomous states. In these pre-democratic times, the German states were ruled by princes.

Many of these states had standing professional armies, elite by the standards of the day. The German princes would sometimes lease out their armies to other European powers in order to replenish their royal coffers.

When the American Revolution began, the British government resorted to leased German troops to supplement the overburdened British military presence in North America. Most of the German troops who fought in the American Revolutionary War on the British side came from two German states: Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau. The Americans would remember them all as Hessians.

The Hessians had a reputation for brutality. It was said that no Continental soldier wanted to be taken prisoner by the German troops. The Continentals loathed and feared the Hessians even more than the British redcoats.

I supposed that Harry Bailey would have known more about the Hessians than I did, from my basic public school history courses. But Harry Bailey wasn’t writing an article for a history magazine. The readers of Spooky American Tales would be more interested in the ghostly details:

“That much, my dear readers, is indisputable historical record. Journey to the town of White Plains, New York, today, and you will find monuments that commemorate the battle.

“But here is where history takes a decidedly macabre turn, and where believers part ranks with the skeptics. For according to the old legends, one of the enemy dead at the Battle of White Plains would become that hideous ghoul—the Headless Horseman. 

“A lone Hessian artillery officer was struck, in the thick of battle, by a Continental cannonball. Horrific as it may be to imagine, that American cannonball struck the unlucky Hessian square in the head, thereby decapitating him. 

“What an affront, from the perspective of a proud German military man! To have one’s life taken and one’s body mutilated in such a way!

“So great was the rage of the dead Hessian, that he would not rest in his grave! He rose from his eternal sleep to take revenge on the young American republic after the conclusion of the American Revolution.

“This is the gist of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. The tale is set in the rural New York village of Sleepy Hollow, around the year 1790. 

“But we have reason to believe that ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ was not the last chapter in the story of the Headless Horseman. For according to some eyewitness accounts, that fiendish ghoul has returned again from the depths of hell. 

“Read on, my friends, for the details!”

Lying there on my bed reading, I rolled my eyes at Harry Bailey’s florid prose. He was really laying it on thick. But then, I supposed, that was what the readers of a magazine called Spooky American Tales would require.

Then I noticed that the hairs on my arms were standing on end.

My gooseflesh hadn’t been caused by the article in Spooky American Tales—at least, I didn’t think so. I hadn’t yet bought into the notion that the legend of the Headless Horseman might be anything more than an old folktale.

Nor was the temperature in my bedroom excessively cold. Three years ago, my parents had invested in a central air conditioning system for the house. They used the air conditioning, but sparingly. It sometimes seemed as if they were afraid that they might break the air conditioning unit if they kept the temperature in the house below 75°F. With the door closed, it was downright stuffy in my bedroom.

I had an unwanted awareness of that bedroom door, and what might be on the other side of it.

The shape I had seen in the hallway.

Then I told myself that I was being foolish.

It was a bright, sunny June day. The walls were thin, and the door of my bedroom was thin. I could hear the muffled murmurs of the television in the living room.

It wasn’t as if I was alone in some haunted house from Gothic literature. I was lying atop my own bed, in my own bedroom, in the house where I’d grown up. My parents—both of them—were only a few yards away.

There is nothing out there in the hall, I affirmed.

With that affirmation in mind, I continued reading.

 

Chapter 17

Table of contents

Rereading ‘Salem’s Lot’ after 35 years

The original hardcover, published in 1975

I recently decided to reread Stephen King’s vampire novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. This seemed reasonable enough, as I had first read the book in 1984. (After thirty-five years, just about any novel or film will seem fresh again.)

I have a lot of nostalgia associated with this novel, as I tend to have a lot of nostalgia associated with a lot of things. This was the book that birthed my adult interest in reading and writing.

In February of 1984, I was a sophomore in high school. During my free period, I worked behind the counter of the school library. That’s right: I was a librarian.

But I wasn’t a big reader. Not at that time, at least. I had been a very avid reader during my childhood years, devouring series like John Dennis Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain, and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators.

Once I hit puberty, though, I developed other interests: football and rock music, specifically.

I did play high school football for a while—if you can dignify what I did with that description. (I was a third-string right tackle, or something like that.) And I messed around with a few garage bands. I can still play the basic chords on a guitar. (But I was always much more interested in lyrics than in music.)

One day, when things were slow in the school library, I picked up a dogeared paperback copy of ‘Salem’s Lot on a whim, and started reading it.

I was immediately hooked. I checked the book out, and read the entire thing in less than a week.

After that, I read the rest of Stephen King’s oeuvre, as it existed in 1984. Stephen King fans tend to divide themselves between those who prefer his newer style—long, rambling books like Duma Key and 11/22/63, and those who prefer the tightly plotted, shorter novels of his earlier years. Put me solidly in the latter camp. The Stephen King books I most love: The Stand, Pet Sematary, Christine, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Cujo, and ’Salem’s Lot were already available in 1984. (’Salem’s Lot, in fact, had already been out for a decade in 1984, and had already been adapted into a made-for-TV movie, starring David Soul as Ben Mears.)

 

There is much about ‘Salem’s Lot to love. Let’s start with the way Stephen King pulls you into the small-town New England setting. I have spent most of my life in Ohio, and I’ve never been within a hundred miles of Maine. But when I read ‘Salem’s Lot, I had a deep, palpable feeling of small-town Maine life in the mid-1970s, when the story takes place.

The horror element of the story builds slowly, and is an organic part of the setting. The horror is embedded in the history of the town, and Ben Mears’s terrifying childhood experience in the Marsten House. When the supernatural phenomena begin to occur, they are believable precisely because Stephen King has already made you believe in this world of ‘Salem’s Lot, a small town in rural Maine.

It starts with the very prosaic, quite mundane details, as seen through the eyes of Ben Mears. It begins as Mears, still haunted by the death of his wife, is driving into the town where he had spent a few happy summers of his childhood:

…and he could see Schoolyard Hill through the slash in the trees where the Central Maine Power pylons ran on a northwest to southeast line. The Griffen farm was still there, although the barn had been enlarged. He wondered if they still bottled and sold their own milk. The logo had been a smiling cow under the name brand: “Sunshine Milk from Griffen Farms!” He smiled. He had splashed a lot of that milk on his cornflakes at Aunt Cindy’s house.

That, you see, is how a master horror writer like Stephen King suspends your disbelief. He begins by investing you in the characters and the settings. Then he introduces the paranormal—the scary stuff.

 

The vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot are old-school vampires. They are spiritually foul, evil creatures who pose a threat to your immortal soul. The best horror fiction involves the threat of death—either spiritual death or physical death. ‘Salem’s Lot involves both.

I will confess a love of the old-school vampires, done in the Bram Stoker mode. I moderately enjoyed Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, but it was a lightweight vampire novel compared to ’Salem’s Lot. A virus-created vampire is not a proper vampire. A proper vampire must be a supernatural, reanimated being. It must recoil from crucifixes, and be burned by holy water. A vampire is not a scientific accident, or a misunderstood antihero (more on that abomination shortly).

 

Stephen King maintains a pretty tight pace throughout ‘Salem’s Lot. Like I said, I read it the first time in less than a week; and I read it the second time at a similarly brisk pace.

Nevertheless, the book was originally published in 1975. Since then, much as changed. The reading public has become accustomed to 200+ channels on cable television, Jame Patterson-style minimalist thrillers, and…of course, the Internet, cell phones, and all the distractions of digital life. Attention spans are much short than they were in 1975, or even 1984.

I would like to declare that I haven’t been personally influenced by any of this, but I know better. As much as I admire Stephen King’s “world-building” in ‘Salem’s Lot, there were a few passages in which he spends a bit too many words going in-depth about the foibles and petty hypocrisies of small-town life.

Also, I was fifteen when I read the book for the first time. I was fifty when I reread it. In the intervening years, I have read many novels, and consumed countless television dramas, movies, etc. Perhaps my standards are more exacting than they were in 1984.

 

There is a feeling of pathos that the reader gets from ‘Salem’s Lot, and I believe that this is one of the book’s under-appreciated aspects. Much of the best horror fiction does leave us slightly sad and reflective. After reading a good horror novel, you should be like the wedding guest in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “a sadder and a wiser man” (or woman).

Ben Mears comes to ‘Salem’s Lot in order to recover from an existential tragedy, the death of his wife, Miranda, in an accident. What he encounters there, however, is yet another tragedy—this one even more profound and disturbing.

On a personal level, he briefly finds love again, in his budding relationship with Susan Norton. But that (spoiler alert) is not to last. His loss of Susan, moreover, will be closely tied to the vampire outbreak, culminating in a scene that is reminiscent of a scene in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

 

I love ‘Salem’s Lot, as this post probably makes clear. My own personal attachment to the book aside, I sincerely believe that it is a great novel, and probably the best novel of the vampire genre yet written.

I despise what Stephanie Meyer and her many imitators have done to the vampire genre. The vampire should be dark and terrifying. Twilight—and the many Twilight knock-offs—have transformed the vampire into a teenage girl’s romantic fantasy. (Search for “vampire novel” on Amazon, and most of the results will be YA romance novels. Gag me.)

But we still have ‘Salem’s Lot. If you like the idea of a real vampire novel, then you should definitely read this one, if you haven’t done so already.

‘Revolutionary Ghosts’ in Kindle Unlimited…for a while, at least!

I’ve enrolled Revolutionary Ghosts in Kindle Unlimited for the next 90 days.

Eventually, it will probably be going out to other stores and platforms. For now, though, you can read it for free if you have a Kindle Unlimited membership! I hope you enjoy it.

 

About Revolutionary Ghosts:

The year is 1976, and the Headless Horseman rides again!

Steve Wagner is an ordinary Ohio teenager in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976.

As that summer begins, his thoughts are mostly about girls, finishing high school, and driving his 1968 Pontiac Bonneville.

But this will be no ordinary summer. Steve sees evidence of supernatural activity in the area near his home: mysterious hoof prints and missing persons reports, and unusual, violently inclined men with British accents.

There is a also a hideous woman—the vengeful ghost of a condemned Loyalist spy—who appears in the doorway of Steve’s bedroom.

Filled with angry spirits, historical figures, and the Headless Horseman of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Revolutionary Ghosts is a terrifying coming-of-age story with a groovy 1970s vibe.

 

What I’m working on…late January 2019!

The manuscript for Revolutionary Ghosts (which I’ve been serializing here on the site) is done. I’m finishing up some final edits.

Then it goes off to a third-party editor and proofreader.

Revolutionary Ghosts should be available on Amazon by February 1st.

Don’t hold me to that, please…but that’s the plan.

You know how it is with publishing…the best laid plans often change.