Every year at harvest time, something strange and wonderful happens in the sleepy farm community of Ember Hollow. It comes alive. Truckloads of pumpkins are sent off to be carved into lanterns. Children scramble to create the creepiest, scariest costumes. Parents stock up on candy and prepare for the town’s celebrated Pumpkin Parade. And then there is Devil’s Night . . .
But this year, something is different. Some of the citizens are experiencing dark, disturbing visions. Others are beginning to wonder if they’re losing their minds, or maybe their souls. One newly sober singer with the voice of a fallen angel is tempted to make a deal that will seal his fate. And one very odd boy is kept locked in a shed by his family—for reasons too horrible to imagine . . .
Whatever is happening to this town, they’re going to make it through this Halloween. Even if it kills them . . .
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"Helen, a few weeks ago, the empty field you see behind me was home to roughly twenty-five thousand Autumn's Pride pumpkins," pronounced local reporter Kit Calloway. "They're all gone now, on their way to markets and homes around the country. But a good many are staying right here in Ember Hollow, where they will be carved and decorated for the town's annual Pumpkin Parade on Halloween night."
Viewers were treated to stock footage of parades past, with costumed bystanders hooting and clapping while spooky floats crawled by with more elaborately costumed performers aboard.
"For, you see, come Halloween, Ember Hollow becomes Hollow, Halloween Capital of the World." The handsome reporter gave a charming raise of his eyebrow. "And this year promises a little something extra, as the town's very own homegrown rock band The Chalk Outlines takes the stage above The Grand Illusion cinemas to play a full set. Now the band has taken the local club scene by storm, but this year, with their performance at the theater, they hope to garner the attention of a special guest."
"Kerwin Stuyvesant — Talent Manager" read the screen caption under a man in his fifties who wore a bright green suit and funny-looking little hexagonal spectacles. He smiled into the camera with huge teeth that made the tiny glasses seem like toys. "The kids have been rehearsing and hitting the gigs hard, and if I didn't believe they had what it takes to make it to the top, I wouldn't have signed on to manage 'em!"
A quick snip of the trio of Halloween-themed punk rockers, awash in strobe-lit fog at some dive club, flashed on the screen before a cut back to Calloway, who concluded the report with a graceful nod. "Helen, as always, I'll be right here in Ember Hollow covering the parade and enjoying the company of these great citizens! Back to you!"
* * *
Thirteen-year-old Stuart Barcroft woke to the sound of his mother's low humming as she breezed past his door to the room of his older brother, Dennis. He hopped from his bed and hurried into his clothes, eavesdropping on the conversation between mother and brother.
Ma — Elaine Barcroft to you and me — exclaimed, "Oh my word, Dennis! Is that going to wash out of my sheets?"
And he knew Dennis had blood on him again.
As Stuart headed toward Dennis's room, he saw a sheet of sunlight spill onto the hallway floor from the doorway — Ma opening the curtains on his poor brother.
"That makeup is a mess," she huffed, but was not really that sore about it.
At the doorway, Stuart looked his big brother over to make sure he was okay. Dennis, taking a long drink of water from the glass he kept at his bedside, was still in performance attire. His hair, already way too long on top, was disheveled and sticky. Surely exhausted, he hadn't changed out of his stage attire of torn black denim pants and a hospital scrub top spritzed with the offending stage blood, over a black long-sleeve T-shirt with bones printed on the arms.
"Oh yeah, Ma. I checked the package. Washes right out." Despite his exhaustion, he was as patient and respectful with his mother as always.
Spotting Stuart, Dennis raised the glass. "Hey, dude."
"Why didn't you clean it off?" groused their mother. "And you're still dressed!"
When Dennis had moved back in (at the ripe old age of twenty-six) it was into a room his mother had kept essentially as he had left it when he moved out at eighteen. The walls remained plastered with punk posters: Misfits, Black Flag, The Addicts, Sex Pistols, Order of the Fly, Nekromantix, and, of course, Elvis.
"Our gig went over," Dennis explained in a scratchy voice. "Had three encores."
"You're sure that's all?" probed Ma.
Stuart called. When she spun with a quick squeal, Dennis and Stuart broke out laughing. Stuart was just trying to get her off Dennis's case. Giving her a start was a bonus.
Ma was a good sport about it. "Just how many scares can I expect this Halloween?"
Dennis gave her a tight hug and a kiss on top of her head. "All of 'em."
Ma took his wrist and pushed up the long sleeves of his black undershirt. "Let me see something."
She turned over his heavily tattooed arm and examined his inner elbow. Dennis pulled away. " What the hell?"
"I hear so many things about punk music people," she said in a grim tone. "Promise me you're not using any hard drugs?"
Dennis and Stuart rebuked in harmony.
Ma clapped once, holding her hands together as she gave a satisfied chuckle. "Guess your ol' Ma can still pull off a Halloween prank herself every now and again, huh?"
Dennis walked to his dresser, picked up a crumpled orange flyer, and handed it to Stuart. "I'm a drunk. Not a junkie. There's a diff."
"Don't that!" she rebuked. "You're not either one! Not anymore."
Stuart read the flyer and grinned.
Ma sniffed at Dennis's water glass.
the chalk outlines! on stage tonight! read the flyer. It was a rough, old-school mimeograph job, featuring a grainy photo of Dennis with his bandmates, a muscular Hispanic and a petite sneering alt chick, all of them dressed in campy Halloween-inspired rockabilly gear.
"Once a drunk, always a drunk, Ma. That's the deal." Even this sounded cool coming from Dennis.
She patted his back. "You're doing so well, Dennis. I'm proud of you."
Stuart offered an agreeing smile, not sure if he should say anything.
"Now !" Ma squealed. "You shouldn't keep Reverend McGlazer waiting."
She kissed him and turned to leave. "Oh! Can you drop Stuart at school? You want to hear how Dennis's jig went, don't you, Stuart?"
Stuart and Dennis snickered at her word choice. "Sure, Ma. No prob."
* * *
Beaming, Stuart raised the luchador mask off his face and amped up the volume. His favorite part of autumn mornings was this: riding in his brother's tricked-out hearse as leaves blew across the tree-lined streets and swirled in mini twisters, chasing each other under an umber haze.
The trees, fences, and mailboxes along the street all wore such elaborate Halloween decorations, it was like a high-stakes contest. Nylon witches and ghosts floated in the trees, wooden black cat cutouts stood in the flowerbeds, wittily inscribed Styrofoam tombstones jutted from front-yard displays.
Dennis's 1970 Cadillac hearse was a mobile advertisement for his band, with flames painted on the hood, cartoonish chalk outlines of a voluptuous woman's corpse stickered on the doors, and a V8 472 cc engine that could roar like an enraged lion. Stuart loved to ride in it, especially to school.
The familiar punkabilly music emanating from the speakers had Stuart bobbing his head, tapping his fingers on his thigh.
Dennis looked at him, pleased. "You really dig that track, huh?"
"I think it's your best ever."
"Let's hope the record company suit agrees."
"She dude!" Stuart insisted. "I'd bet on it!"
The chorus began, and Stuart sang along with appropriate facial contortions.
"I better watch you, man," Dennis said. "You'll end up replacing me."
"Yeah, right," Stuart said and scoffed with a sideways glance at his brother. "Maybe I can be in the band one day though. Keyboards or something."
"No way, daddy-o." Dennis shook his head, as he always did when Stuart raised the topic. "College. Then some more college! After that, college. You'll be going to college — beyond the grave!" Dennis goosed his brother, right in that spot under his ribs that made him giggle like a baby. But for Stuart, the appeal of one day being like his brother was near irresistible. "We'll see."
"For real, Stuart. Mom's had plenty of guff outta me. She doesn't need it from her widdle baby bubby."
"Shut up. You're doing okay. Pretty good, actually."
"Maybe." Dennis took his eyes from the road to give Stuart an earnest, penetrating gaze. "But you're gonna do better."
A dozen yards ahead, burly Mister Dukes cast a scowl at them, which seemed reasonable given that he was in the midst of unwinding moist toilet paper from his mailbox. His morning's labor was only beginning; more of the soggy bands lay draped across his shrubs.
Dennis slowed the hearse and rolled down the window. "Morning, Mister Dukes. Ya got hit?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Dukes waved to Stuart as he wadded the tissue into a handful. "Hey, it wasn't you, was it, boys? Be honest."
"Come on, Mr. Dukes." Dennis stayed cool, as always.
"Aaah I'm sorry. It's just ... that weird music, and whatnot." Dukes squinted like the concept was a literal indecipherable blur to him. "What d'ya call it? Junkabilly?"
Before Stuart could stop himself, he explained, "It's called horror punk!"
Dennis nudged him. "Easy."
"No offense, boys." Dukes frowned at all the unpapered yards surrounding his. "Guess I'm just too old for all this Halloween crap."
"Never too old for Halloween, Mr. Dukes!" Dennis called, waving. "Hope you make it to the Pumpkin Parade!"
"Maybe." Dukes waved, mumbling something they couldn't hear.
As they pulled away, Dennis gave Stuart a reproachful glare. "Gotta build good rapport with the public, Stuart."
"He doesn't respect our music!"
"Nobody does. That's why it's called punk, genius."
Stuart had this thought and the music to fill his mind for the rest of the ride to Ember Hollow Junior High. If they had stayed at Mr. Dukes's place longer, they would have seen him open his mailbox and find a single piece of orange-and- black-wrapped candy.CHAPTER 2
Dennis's father had bought the hearse for him and begun tricking it out before Dennis could even drive. It always drew gawks from parents and students in the drop-off queue, and Stuart loved it. Especially when he spotted a familiar contractor's van in the queue, with its battered ladders and PVC lengths bungeed to the top.
Stuart cracked the window and cranked up the music for the benefit of everybody else, relishing the reactions directed at both the music and the hearse.
Dennis batted Stuart's luchador mask off his head. "I see you sporting that tough-guy sneer there, Robert Blake."
Stuart shoved Dennis's arm, but Dennis smacked his hand down, saying, "Good luck with the costume contest, by the way."
"Think I'll win?"
"No doubt — especially if you ditch the hood."
Stuart shoved both middle fingers in his brother's face, but then found his attention drawn to the contractor's van, from which exited glorious, gorgeous, quirky Candace Geelens.
She was ready for the homeroom costume contest as well, in a homemade green alien bodysuit, complete with ping-pong-ball eyes bobbing on springs atop the tight hood on her head. Beyond the fluttering of his heart was a mild ache; this childish costume would surely make Candace a target of ridicule.
But maybe she didn't give a damn. Stuart hoped that was so, and it only made him like her more.
Dennis must have been watching him watch her. With a light shove of Stuart's head, he said, "That's the new chick?"
"Yeah." Stuart sighed. "Candace. She's not really new anymore. Been here the whole year."
"What? And you still haven't made your move?"
"It's never the right time."
Dennis sized her up. "She's not exactly the cheerleader-poodle-skirt-Barbie type."
"You got that straight. She's all art, no ads." Stuart followed the girl with his gaze as she walked alone, head down. He just wished she would look up sometime and see him (ever so casually) smiling at her.
"Here's a lightbulb," Dennis offered. "Why don't you invite her to the Pumpkin Parade? Tell her your badass brother's playing and needs some cool cats and chicks on the float tossing swag and flying the horns." Dennis made a fist with first and little fingers extended and pushed the "horns" in Stuart's face.
Stuart lit with a spark of hope. "Know what? That might work!"
"You know it will."
"If Ma will let me."
"I'll handle Ma. You handle Candace. And I don't mean literally, pervo." The self-assurance in Dennis's eyes made Stuart question that his big brother could ever have faltered, even in the wake of their father's passing. "Now get the hell outta my ride, ya square. You're cramping my style."
Stuart slugged Dennis on the shoulder and hopped out, putting on his best sneer as the hearse's engine rumbled.
He cast a glance at Candace of course — and found her looking his way. He turned his head fast enough it made him dizzy — and cursed himself for not giving her a cool nod or that smile he had practiced exactly one zillion times.
Then a lanky black kid showed, hanging his arm over Stuart's shoulder. "What's new with you and the weird chick, Stewie?" DeShaun Lott had been Stuart's best friend since either could remember.
"Nothing. I blew it."
DeShaun, costumed as George Washington, cocked his wigged head. "We need to work on your game, man."
"Yeah?" Stuart retorted. "How's your game, Mister Smooth?"
"Okay, we need to work on game. But you get to be the guinea pig."
Stuart pulled his mask over his face and walked from the misty morning chill through the school doors with his buddy.
* * *
Chief Deputy Hudson Lott, father of DeShaun, frowned at a puzzle of colored glass shards and a fist-sized rock at his feet.
Standing at the four-way stop on Second Street, Hudson scanned the rows of shops on either side: Lefwich Bros. Upholstery, We Nailed It! Manicurists, a thrift store, a tobacconist. He was awaiting a municipal crew en route to repair the traffic light shattered overnight.
Far from busy this early in the day, bored proprietors and cashiers often stepped out to say hello or offer coffee.
When the chief sent him on this — what should have been a rookie task — Lott had to bite his tongue yet again. The chief wasn't trying to cause Hudson grief, after all; he was just trying to avoid any for himself, and maybe even protect Hudson in light of recent events.
Out of the academy, Hudson had popped the question to his high school sweetheart, Leticia, and promptly swept her away to the most autumnal place he could find, simply because she loved the season.
"Ember Hollow is the nation's foremost producer and exporter of all breeds of jack-o'-lantern pumpkins, including Jericho's Wall Super Squash, 'exclusive to the region,'" read the chamber of commerce's pamphlet. This and the town's ambiance, with the annual Pumpkin Parade preparations starting four months in advance, made it about as "autumn" as any place could get.
But it was also about as as it got.
Being a large black man of authority in a sprawling farm town had its challenges, chief among them a constant balancing act between courtesy and obsequiousness — as if there was a need to compensate for his intimidating appearance — and being professional to the point of seeming aloof.
Hudson's keen awareness of when and where he fit on this scale served him well enough — most of the time. But an incident that found him at odds with a senior officer had revealed unspoken racial tensions, within the department and the town.
He shook away the unpleasant recall, returning his thoughts to the present. He admired the decorations that ranged from garish and tacky to understatedly spooky that adorned the shop windows. The young Indian laurel trees rising from brick planters along the sidewalks had gone full orange, their leaves breaking free by the hundreds in the morning gusts and blowing all around Lott. One flattened against his face, as if mocking him for being stuck with such a meaningless duty. He snatched it away.
A massive Ford Galaxie, driven by a tightly scarfed old lady Hudson knew only as Mrs. Dubois, rolled toward the intersection. Hudson checked all directions, merely a show, given the sparse morning traffic, and guided her around the shards.
Then, quiet again.
Hudson's thoughts returned to the incident that had left him in this limbo.
* * *
Reverend Abe McGlazer stepped back from the church sign to proofread.
volunteers still needed for
13th annual pumpkin parade!!!
Tricksters had been at work the night before, rearranging the letters to read:
mi ass hurt from anal love!!!
When Ruth brought him to see the anagram, McGlazer had laughed, a contrast to Ruth's grim indignance.
McGlazer had thought that maybe Ruth, who did volunteer work helping to maintain the church and cemetery, could use a little love herself.
Saint Saturn Unitarian Church, a centuries-old stone structure with a towering steeple, sat atop a sweeping hill amid a historic cemetery, offering a view of the town's main street in front, an eternity of pumpkin and cornfields behind, woods and housing developments on either side. It required a good deal of upkeep, but with horrific tragedies assailing children in all corners of the globe, McGlazer just couldn't pull the trigger on using tithe money for church remodeling projects.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Red Harvest"
Copyright © 2018 Patrick C. Greene.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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