Unfortunately, with all the busyness surrounding the end of the school year and vacation, I’ve let this series fall idle. Time to pick it back up, get things going again. To recap: I’ve been recalling several of the writers I’ve encountered over the last year and half that have really broadened my horizons in the horror genre. As I’ve said before, I’m one of those folks who used to say: “Sure, I read horror – Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Peter Straub. Maybe John Saul, too.”
And that was it.
About a year and a half ago, I embarked on a mission to encounter OTHER horror writers. Why? A good reason can be found here, in Brian Keene’s Keynote Address for AnthoCon 2011, “Roots”. Because how can you create something new, if you haven’t studied what has come before? (Note: I also have no life, and would rather read than experience actual human contact with anyone outside my immediate family, so this works out very conveniently).
I decided to share my thoughts here, because – as I mentioned in my first episode of Horror List 101 at Tales to Terrify – it’s very easy to get stuck in a rut. Have a narrow reading selection, even in the age of the Internet, and with libraries, and all that. If you don’t even know the questions to ask, you don’t know where to find the answers. So, my modest hope is to point young writers in the right direction. Especially writers hoping to submit to future editions of The Midnight Diner.
So, here’s this week’s much-belated selection. Critically acclaimed writer, Al Sarrantonio. As always, a little Wikipedia-fueled background.
Al Sarrantonio (born May 25, 1952, in New York City) is an American horror and science fiction author who has published, over the past thirty-five years, more than forty-five books and eighty short stories. He has also edited numerous anthologies and has been called “brilliant” and “a master anthologist” by Booklist.
In 1976 Sarrantonio began a professional editing career at a major New York publishing house. His first short fiction, “Ahead of the Joneses,” appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1978, followed by a story in Heavy Metal magazine the following year. In 1980 he published 14 short stories. In 1982, after leaving publishing to become a full time writer, he began his first novel, The Worms, followed by Campbell Wood, Totentanz and The Boy with Penny Eyes. He quickly established himself in the horror field with such much-anthologized stories as “Pumpkin Head”, “The Man With Legs”, “Father Dear,” “Wish”, and “Richard’s Head,” (all of which appear in his first short story collection, Toybox). “Richard’s Head” brought him his first Bram Stoker Award nomination.
Sarrantonio is currently in the midst of a horror saga revolving around Halloween, which takes place in the fictional upstate New York town of Orangefield (novels to date: Halloweenland, Hallows Eve and Horrorween, the last of which incorporates three shorter Orangefield pieces: the short novel Orangefield, and novelettes Hornets and The Pumpkin Boy). Other horror novels include Moonbane, October, House Haunted and Skeletons. He has also written Westerns (West Texas and Kitt Peak), mysteries (Cold Night and Summer Cool) and science fiction (the Edgar Rice Burroughs-inflected trilogy Haydn of Mars, Sebastian of Mars and Queen of Mars, omnibused as Masters of Mars by the Science Fiction Book Club, 2006).
Sarrantonio was book reviewer for Night Cry magazine, the short-lived digest-sized offshoot of the Twilight Zone Magazine, and has been a critic and columnist for other publications. Because he has worn so many hats (novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, editor, publisher, anthologist) and worked in so many genres (he has even edited three collections of humor, including The National Lampoon Treasury of Humor) his work, always interesting and often brilliant, has not, perhaps, gained the attention it deserves.
Ironically enough, I encountered Al’s later work in the Orangefield novels, before moving on to his earlier novels. If I remember correctly, I’d just finished Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and was jonesing for some more spooky, cider-spiced, autumn-crisp Halloween-themed horror. A quick search through Amazon turned up Halloweenland, Hallows Eve and Horrorween, so I snapped those babies right up.
And loved them. Very clearly written in the spirit of Something Wicked This Way Comes, every word practically glowing with Bradbury-esque descriptions of autumn and Halloween (with an evil carnival to boot), the Orangefield books tell of this strange town in upstate New York that always gets a little “odd” during Halloween. That’s because the ancient demon Samhain is trying to break through the thinned veils into our world.
Lots of writers have tried to invoke Bradbury’s haunted, October magic. In my opinion, Sarrantonio is one of the few who’ve actually done it well, while maintaining his own style. However, in some ways, the Orangefield novels read as homages of Bradbury’s Halloween. Two more original – yet still Bradbury inspired – works are Totentanz and October.
Totentanz is basically Sarrantonio’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, though it has several unique twists – including an immortal prisoner of the carnival – that make it Sarrantonio’s own. It still has all those classic vibes, though. Of that evil carnival visiting town, offering up pleasures and delights and gifts and treasures…for a small price, of course. October, about an ancient, recurring evil that lives and breathes through others, hums with Bradbury’s soul, but the words and ideas are all Sarrantonio’s.
Perhaps my favorite work of his – so far- is The Boy With Penny Eyes, an eerie tale about a strange, emotionless boy…with copper-colored eyes. He’s not quite right, this boy. Not quite normal. Maybe not even completely human, and he knows things. Things about us, deep inside. And, he’s got a mission. A purpose. Of terrible, dread intent.
Best thing about Penny Eyes is the neat little switch Sarrantonio plays. Won’t go into too much detail, but he definitely leads you by the nose in one direction, then skilfully, smoothly flips everything on its head.
Unfortunately, as of this date I haven’t consumed as much of his short work as I would’ve liked to. I have one of his collections – Toybox – but just haven’t gotten around to it. I did recently read one of his shorts, “The Only”, from the Charles Granted edited series Graystone Bay. Based on that story, I’ll definitely be digging into the Toybox soon (see what I did there?). Also, two other novels of his I own that I was hoping to have read by now but haven’t are Skeletons and House Haunted.
Also, I’ve not been able to check out any of Sarrantonio’s edited collections, as of yet. I want to, because word has it he ranks right up there with Charles Grant as an anthologist. Portents and Stories are on my wishlist. As someone who has a passing interest in being an editor himself someday (when I’m ready, and who knows when that’ll be), his edited collections are must reads, from all accounts.
Anyway, the king of October spookyness is Ray Bradbury, of course. But the darker prince would be Al Sarrantonio, so his work is highly recommended. AND, like many veteran horror authors, Sarrantonio’s out of print work has come back in affordable ebook from through Crossroads Press. So snatch that stuff up for your preferred ereader today.
Kevin Lucia is a Contributing Editor for Shroud Magazine, a podcaster for Tales to Terrify and a blogger for The Midnight Diner. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles, and he’s currently working on his first novel. Visit him on the web at www.kevinlucia.com.