Sunday, January 20, 2008

Books: The Great Pumpkin it ain't.

Norman Partridge's short novel Dark Harvest has the kick-ass junkshop rawness of a perfect garage rock single one finds forgotten and gathering dust in some Salvation Army record bin. Even the title, which is about the only lame thing about the book, fits: like the clumsy moniker of some band of talented teens that have lucked on a killer cover of some under-praised slice of American rock, it undersells what you've got your hands on. Partridge's slim book – 169 pages of nice-sized print – is Jackson's classic American-gothic short story "The Lottery" filtered through B-horror flicks, juvie delinquent movies, slasher films, pre-Invasion rock, and episodes of the twilight zone.

The story takes place on Halloween night, 1963, in a nameless American town somewhere in the Corn Belt. Every Halloween, the October Boy, a living scarecrow with a bad tendency to take knives to folks, makes a run from the cornfields outside the town to the church in the town's center. The October Boy, aka Sawtooth Jack, aka Ol' Hacksaw Face, is this creepy avatar of the holiday he's named after: he's got a flaming Jack O' Lantern head, a body made of twisted vines and roots, and candy spills from his body and mouth.

You'd think that the annual visit of the October Boy would cause the townspeople to lock their doors and wait the night out. But, instead, the Boy is at the center of a strange coming-of-age ritual. Every Halloween, as Sawtooth Jack prowls the streets of the town, the teenage boys take to the streets to hunt him. Fathers who survived previous runs arm their boys with the weapons they carried years ago – pitchforks, machetes, nail-spiked boards – and the streets fill with panicked, hyped, marauding teen boys on the hunt for a monster. They even ritually starve the boys – no for days – so that they'll be hungry for the candy inside the October Boy.

The prize? The boy who kills the October Boy gets to leave this crap town. He blows on out of this nameless nightmare burg in the middle of nowhere and never looks back. In fact, it seems to be the only way anybody ever gets to leave.

Partridge tells his story in a jazzy, ironic first person narration – as himself, apparently as the voice links to nobody in the story. His story-tellers voice gives the whole work a quick, rocking pace:

There's a soft rustle behind Charlie. As he turns, he's certain he's going to see Mitch or Bud catching up to him, but you've already figured out that isn't what's creeping up on him out there in that cornfield.

Hey, that's no surprise, because you're a whole lot smarter than our buddy Charlie, aren't you?

Tell the truth now – who the hell isn't?

Fans of the epic horror fiction of King or the mythology-building works of Barker might find this book a little thin. Ultimately, it belongs not with those but with the sort of magical parables of writers like Steve Millhauser or the off-kilter fantasy of Kelly Link – though Partridge is clearly writing from the horror genre's traditions in a way those to writers are not. This is a nightmare vision of the classic All-American coming-of-age story, a counter-myth to the great myth of Smallville, USA. It reminds me of "The Lottery," "Sleepy Hallow," the Japanese splatter sci-fi novel Battle Royale, and the YA classic The Outsiders; the things just that densely built. Pound for pound, I can’t think of a horror book that packs in this much good stuff in so few pages.

Dark Harvest is available from Tor and, in paperback, will run you about $12. That's a good night or two worth of reading and for the price of Manhattan movie ticket. Not bad.


Anonymous said...

Ever read the Watermelon King ? I picked it up out of the $2 hard-cover bargain bin. Similarly small town bizarre rituals etc.

CRwM said...

I've missed that one. I've got a Wallace on my shelf - somebody somebody and the magician - but I haven't got around to it yet. I saw Big Fish which is set in the same town, but that's as close as I got.