Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Story: Let the Jack-O'-Lanterns Light Your Way Home

Hello and welcome to The Jonathan Hatfull Halloween Special! Sorry about that. Best to just get it out of the way. Ahem. So, without further ado, please enjoy the following story...


Bobby was hungry. Starving, in fact. He knew that Baby Lauren was hungry too. She’d been crying for the last forty five minutes. He’d been going in to check on her and had noticed with alarm how her face was growing more and more alarming shades of red as her shrieking increased in volume. His own stomach was also rumbling.

Bobby was an upbeat little eight-year-old, with a lanky frame that belied his appetite, but despite his sunny disposition he was worried. His parents had said that they wouldn’t be long. They had said that they were only going down the street to get more candy for the trick or treaters. They had said that they would be back before Bobby knew it. They had said all this quite a long time ago. Too long. The costume-shop-bought fake blood that his dad had helped to smear around his mouth had long since dried and cracked, and the too-tightly-fitting vampire fangs had been removed and left on the arm of the couch. Baby Lauren’s crying worried him. She cried a lot, and he understood that this was because she was a baby, but his mom would always do something to make it better. Bobby understood that Baby Lauren needed something that only his mother could offer her.

Bobby knew what he had to do. He walked over to the crib and picked up Baby Lauren. He was careful to get his hands in the right places; he knew that support was very important. He also knew that it was very important to keep her head warm. He picked up the little witch’s hat that his mom had spent so long creating and pulled it down tight over his little sister’s ears. It would have to be enough. He grabbed the emergency house keys from the kitchen table. Then he stepped out of the front door.

The sun had gone down about two hours ago. The wide street was lined with parked cars, illuminated by infrequent electric lamps and more frequent jack-o’-lanterns, and covered with crisp autumn leaves that crunched underfoot as Bobby walked down the front steps and out into the night. As they took the first few steps away from the house Baby Lauren stopped crying. He appreciated the confidence shown in him but he had to admit that he didn’t know where he was going. The house next door was empty. Bobby knew this to be true as he had stood at his bedroom window and watched the neighbours pile their belongings into their station wagon and drive away without a look back that very morning. But the next house had their lights on.

Bobby looked down to inspect the jack-o’-lantern that sat by a withered pot plant by the front door. At first glance it didn’t appear to be anything special but closer inspection showed the careful craftsmanship that had gone into creating the perfect edges of the pumpkin’s toothy grin. He took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. It hadn’t even stopped sounding when the door was opened by a man and a woman about Bobby’s parents’ age dressed in matching costumes. Their black hair was immaculately neat. Their dark clothes were beautifully presented, with ornate jewellery that didn’t look like anything that Bobby had seen in any costume store. The blood on their mouths looked fresh. Bobby thought about asking how they managed to keep it from flaking, but he didn’t want to waste a question.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I’m looking for my parents.”

The woman looked down at him and smiled.

“Love your costume, honey. Excellent choice. But I’m sorry, where are my manners? Why don’t you come in here for a few minutes and we’ll talk about it?”

The way she spoke sounded like something out of a movie to Bobby. Somehow he didn’t think people talked like that, it felt like she was putting it on. Something about her accent didn’t quite seem right either. But before he could worry about it too much the man coughed and the woman looked at him.

“Really, Barbara, that’s inappropriate. Look at this young man; he’s being responsible, looking out for his sister. We shouldn’t delay him. Tell me, son, what do your parents look like?”

Bobby described his parents as best he could. He told them that his father was tall, skinny, with thick-rimmed glasses, and wiry black hair and that his mother was shorter than his father and had long blonde hair and was wearing a black dress.

“She said she was going for Blondie dressed as Elvira, or the other way around,” said Bobby. Barbara smiled.

“Well isn’t that just a picture. Give me a moment, please.”

She gave Bobby a little bow and disappeared into the dark house. Bobby could have sworn that it looked like there were more lights on from outside.

“I like your jack-o’-lantern,” said Bobby. The man nodded and cracked his knuckles. “How do you get your blood like that?” he asked, gesturing to the peeling brown mess around his own mouth. The man shrugged.

“Make sure it’s good and keep it fresh,” he said. Bobby thought that made sense. "But are you sure you want to keep looking?" Bobby nodded. Barbara reappeared and smiled apologetically.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, “I did look. But there’s no one of that description here.”

Bobby thanked them for their time and turned to go. He shifted Baby Lauren’s weight a bit and patted her back. She smiled at him, and he remembered that he was doing the right thing even though it was scary.

“If you can’t find your parents, do come back here,” said Barbara. “My husband and I always welcome strangers.”

Bobby turned and saw that both of them were smiling at him. They looked so pale, the two of them standing there, but Bobby felt like they were the warmest smiles he had ever seen. It took a lot for him to turn and leave. But he needed to find his parents.

He moved a little way away and stood still for a moment, looking around for another house to try. The night was cold and he regretted leaving the house wearing just a cape instead of a coat. There was a house across the street that had the downstairs lights on. Bobby could see shadows moving behind the curtains. He set out across the street. As he approached he could hear singing. It looked like a party. Maybe that was where his parents had got to. Maybe they’d lost track of time. By this house’s mailbox there were three pumpkins: one grinning, one frowning, and one scared. The craftsmanship was nothing special, but three pumpkins were three pumpkins, and he admired the commitment to the season. He climbed the front steps and rang the doorbell. The door was opened by a woman with shoulder-length curly brown hair, older than his mom, and two skeletal-thin red-headed younger women who Bobby saw were identical twins stood behind her.

“Can I help you?” asked the woman in a tone of voice that suggested she hoped the answer was no. Bobby realised that he was unwelcome, and from the smell he’d arrived just as dinner was about to hit the table, but he knew he had to press on.

“I’m looking for my parents...” he began, but he was interrupted when the young woman on the left saw Baby Lauren.

“Oh, look at her! She’s adorable! Emily, look!” she cried, nudging her sister, who nodded and patted her sister’s hand but looked like she was waiting for her elder’s reaction before she committed to a reply. The elder did seem to soften a little as she looked Bobby up and down.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” said Bobby. He meant to go on and repeat himself, but the woman waved her hand and Bobby found himself quite unwilling to say anything.

“You are interrupting,” she said. “But don’t worry too much. I understand. You’re being responsible. You’re a good brother, aren’t you? You are, there’s no need to answer me. And I can tell you that we have not seen your parents. But, if you want, I can tell you who might know. I can point you in the right direction. But you need to be sure that it’s what you want.”

The two younger women’s mouths dropped open and each clasped at the older woman’s shoulders.

“You can’t send him over there!”

“He’s just a child!”

“You can’t send him to...”

The woman held up her hands and her companions stopped. She looked back down at Bobby.

“You can see what Emily and Katharine think. They think I shouldn’t tell you. It’s certainly dangerous. Now, do you want to know?”

Bobby was scared. But he knew what he had to do.

“I do,” he said. “I need to find them.”

The woman nodded, and her two friends looked down at the floor.

“Very well,” she said, “Turn left and go three doors down the street. The house on the right won’t have its lights on but someone will be home. Ring the doorbell, someone will answer. Tell them, and this is very important, that Rebecca is waiting for you.”

Bobby nodded. He may have been only eight years old, but he was savvy enough to know that this woman’s instructions needed to be followed. He thanked her and turned to go.

“You’re welcome to come back here,” he heard the woman say.

“Or you can leave her here,” said Katharine, followed by shushing.

Bobby felt his nerve start to waver as he walked further down the street. There were no more carved pumpkins. The leaves seemed to no longer be crisp, instead they were damp clusters. He gripped Baby Lauren a little tighter and tried to keep his pace brisk. He was aware that he and his sister were being watched as he walked, but he didn’t dare look. He could have almost sworn he heard voices, their words incomprehensible but urgent. But Bobby didn’t listen. All he did was keep count of the houses as he went. One. Two. Three.

The woman had been right. The lights weren’t on. The house looked as though nobody had lived there for years. The screen door stood slightly ajar. The glass of the downstairs windows was cracked in the corners. An old pumpkin sat by the junk-filled mailbox, the candle long since burnt out. Bobby stood for a moment at the foot of the steps. It was so quiet, the only thing that he could hear was the wind. He thought of leaving, of going home and waiting. But something in him propelled him up to the front porch, and brought his hand to the doorbell.

The sound of the doorbell was loud and harsh. There was a moment’s silence before Bobby heard footsteps approaching. The door opened.

A strange man stood looking down at him. That was what Bobby thought. A strange man with straggly hair, dirty hair, staring eyes. There was a stink of sweat and something that Bobby didn’t quite recognise.

Rebecca is waiting for me,” he said, almost without thinking. The man took a step backwards and a woman appeared from behind the door. She looked familiar. He recognised the costume but just couldn’t place it.

“Hello, honey, what are you doing here?” she asked. She sounded like she knew him, but Bobby was sure that he’d never seen her in his life.

“I’m looking for my parents,” he said.

“Of course you are, baby,” she nodded, “Why don’t you come in?”

Bobby shook his head. She smiled, and patted the man on the shoulder.

“Do you think we can tell him? I mean, he found his way here, didn’t he?” she asked. Bobby felt his stomach sink. They were here, then. Rebecca had been right. But what were they doing here? Then the man grinned and Bobby knew who he was looking at.

“Sure we can. Hi, sport. So glad you’re here,” said Bobby’s father.

“What’s going on?” asked Bobby. The woman put her hands on Bobby’s shoulders and her black hair fell away, revealing the matted blonde hair underneath

“We tried so hard to be good,” said Bobby’s mom. “We tried to run away. But this is where we belong, Bobby. This is where you belong. Baby Lauren too.”

Bobby could feel Baby Lauren’s stomach gurgling, but when looked at her she was smiling happily. Mom gave her a little wave.

“Do you want to see what Mommy and Daddy do to feel better?” she asked. Bobby didn’t. But he felt a firm hand on his back and he found himself in the kitchen. There were two bodies lying on the linoleum floor by the table. One, a man, was face down, dressed in the red-and-white striped uniform of the nearest diner. The other, a teenage girl, was face up, her eyes wide open. It was impossible to tell where her open mouth ended and the red mess that was now her throat began. She had been dressed as a fairy godmother.

“This is who we are, you see?” said Mom. Bobby felt faint.

Rebecca knows where I am,” he said. His parents looked hurt.

“But you’re safe. You’re where you’re supposed to be,” said his Dad. He sounded like he meant it, and Bobby almost believed it. But he saw the blood on the floor and knew that he’d never find that in any costume store.

The rusty screen door screeched, followed by a knock. Mom looked at Dad, who shrugged. After they turned off the light in the kitchen they went to answer it together. Bobby stood frozen to the spot.

“We saw your adorable little boy and that sweetheart of a baby a little while ago. We told him to come here” Bobby recognised Barbara’s unconvincing twang carrying through the house

“Thank you for putting him on his way,” said Mom. Suddenly the kitchen light went on again and he saw Barbara and her husband stood with the three ladies from the party all gathered around his parents. Here, under better lighting, Bobby realised he couldn’t see a join between the plastic vampire teeth and the couple’s gums. The twins weren’t smiling any more, while Rebecca wore an unpleasant grin.

“If there’s anything we can offer you...” began Dad, but Rebecca held up her hand and Bobby saw his father’s mouth swing shut.

“We’ve discussed it. We thought you’d fit in,” she said.

“But the way you do things, it’s really not appropriate,” said Barbara.

“There are monsters and there are monsters,” the twins said in unison.

“There are ways to do things properly,” said the man with the fangs. “And we’ve decided that we’ll take it from here.”

Barbara grinned and put an arm around her man's shoulders. Rebecca held her hands out to her side, and Emily and Katharine took them.

"Trick or treat, trick or treat. Give us something good to eat."

And at that moment, because he was a young boy who tended to do the right thing, Bobby took Baby Lauren out of the room and out of the back door. He took a seat on the steps leading down to the yard as the screaming started. A couple of minutes passed before the grown-ups joined him on the porch and invited him and Baby Lauren to join their Halloween celebration. He would never be alone on a front porch again.

Trick or treat.



Hope you enjoyed this. I'm actually rather pleased with it. I hope the narrating voice works, I was aiming for an English voice telling an American story, which is what I am, and what I was doing. Hopefully it's not too distracting, but I wanted to tell an American Halloween story.

This went through a few different endings. One had Bobby realising that his family were werewolves and finding out that he'd inherited the trait as the story ended. I also toyed with the idea of Bobby finding his parents had been murdered by werewolves who were wearing their skins but I was wary of ripping off Angela Carter too much. I say this, I probably will rip off Angela Carter in a future story. I'm also a very big fan of the idea that Halloween is when the real-world monsters suddenly find themselves sharing the same space as the stuff of fiction and nightmares. I should mention that this story is quite heavily influenced by Michael Dougherty's splendidly nostalgic and nasty Halloween anthology horror film Trick 'r Treat, in which several unpleasant people find out what happens on the 31st.

I was unsure of whether or not to include the "Trick or treat, trick or treat. Give us something good to eat" line, but if you're not going to go over the top on Halloween, when will you? It's very me, this story. I didn't really want to try anything different or anything experimental. I just wanted to write a story for Halloween.

Well the project continues apace. I'm getting quite excited about it again, which is nice. It's still very early days but I've got a good feeling about where we're headed. And on that note, I'll leave you alone.

Hope you enjoyed the story.


  1. This is probably the best story I've ever read on this site, I've gotta say. The narrative really worked well, and it felt genuinely suspenseful, which is something a lot of horror doesn't manage when you're as desensitised as I am. In fact if you hadn't told me the parents were werewolves I'd never have picked up on it - and I think that that's a good thing.

  2. Thank you very much, sir! Very kind of you to say! Oh and I'm not sure if the parents are werewolves. I think they're just horrible people....But it's open to interpretation.