Today’s special guest is horror author Ronald Kelly, who found success during the horror boom of the ’80’s and ’90’s with novels like Hindsight, Something Out There, Pitfall, Moon of the Werewolf, The Possession, Fear, and Blood Kin. After the implosion of the market in the mid-’90’s, Kelly all but retired from writing to concentrate on raising a family. But while horror had effectively died in the eyes of the New York publishers, small press publishing began to pick up the slack, and it was here that Kelly eventually found a new home, inspired to return to writing by the vocal demands of his ravening fanbase, who missed the author’s unique brand of Southern horror. Since then, notable publishing houses as Cemetery Dance Publications, Thunderstorm Press, Bad Moon Books, and Crossroad Press have released new editions of his previous work in addition to brand new titles, both in digital and print. His most recent releases include Undertaker’s Moon, Fear, Midnight Grinding & Other Twilight Terrors, Flesh Welder, After the Burn, Cumberland Furnace & Other Fear-Forged Fables, Hell Hollow, and Timber Gray.
Here, Ronald discusses his favorite Halloween memories…
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Blood, Sweat, & Fears: My 5 Most Influential Halloweens
If a horror writer tells you that he has never been influenced, in any shape, form, or fashion, by the deliciously creepy, wonderfully weird holiday of All Hallows Eve, then he’s nothing more than a bald-faced liar.
Anyone who enjoys reading horror fiction or watching horror movies – or has intimate ties to such skewed forms of entertainment – must have a soft spot in their heart for Halloween. It’s a necessary form of horror-hungry sustenance… like brains to a zombie, pulsating blood to a vampire, or electricity to the good Doctor’s patchwork offspring. I dare to say, if anyone of us had been denied the thrills of trick-or-treating, carving large orange vegetables into ghoulish lanterns, or decorating a neighbor’s tree with a 4-pack of 2-ply Charmin, we wouldn’t be enjoying the warm, fuzzy state of darkness and depravity that we are at this present moment.
I’m no different than the rest of you, freakish folks. I shamelessly loved Halloween as a child and still do. My blood runs black, orange, and eerie glow-in-the-dark green. Of course, given my background, I was probably born that way. When my mother was pregnant with me way back in the late 50s, she came across a stack of old EC horror comics in the attic of a rental house – Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear – and chose that as her reading material during Ol’ Ron’s gestation period. Instead of being soothed and nurtured by Curious George, Dr. Seuss, or Winnie the Pooh, my pre-natal playmates were flesh-eating zombies, axe murderers, and bug-eyed monsters.
Still, despite that fact – and that I had the living crap scared plumb out of me by the Creature of the Black Lagoon at the tender age of five – I could have grown up normal… and infinitely boring. But my diet of darkness continued and, thankfully, candy corn and peanut butter kisses were part of the fiendish food groups of my youth. When the first of October rolled around, I’d lapse into a near feverish palsy of hand-wringing anticipation! I would strategically plan my costume options, decorate the house with glowing skeletons and rubber spiders, and watch every old monster movie I could find on the three channels of our black-&-white Zenith. And I’d wait for the night when the normalcy of my home town faltered for an evening and staunch, Christian values gave way to roaming ghosts and goblins (and an occasional devil or two) and the practice of begging for candy on one’s doorstep became downright acceptable.
Looking back, I know that a few key Halloweens out of the bunch, more than all the others, influenced me to take my love of the macabre to further extremes than your average trick-or-treating spook. Waxing nostalgic nearly five decades later, I can pinpoint five Halloweens in particular that caused me to remain frozen in a perpetual state of monster-loving adolescence… albeit with more than a few gray hairs and a sagging love handle or two.
1. The Night of the Batmen: I reckon one of my earliest Halloween memories was in 1966. I was six years old and the Batman TV show with Adam West was the big thing that year. Every kid in our neighborhood in West Nashville was Batman crazy. That Halloween saw dozens upon dozens of Caped Crusaders on the prowl… running down the streets, leaping across ditches, and climbing up porches. I guess the neighbors were a mite confused, wondering if they were handing out candy to the same kid over and over again. I don’t think there was a single Robin in the bunch. Who wanted to be stinking, panty-hose wearing Robin anyway?
I remember I had my mom cut the bottom half of my plastic mask off – the man face part—leaving only the cowl. All the other kids thought I was kinda weird because of that. But at least I wasn’t huffing and puffing and sweating like a hog in heat under my mask. At least I could breathe the crisp October air!
2. The Aroma of Latex and the taste of Sanguine Corn Syrup: It was around the age of eight when I graduated from the boxed Halloween costumes with their brittle plastic masks and silk-screened coveralls and was enamored with more realistic apparel. My favorite monster in 1968 was Count Dracula and I was bound and determined to roam our new neighborhood in the little rural town of Pegram, Tennessee as a pale-faced, bloody-fanged nosferatu.
Of course, I pined for the elaborate Don Post monster masks that I saw in the back of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (with the matching hands). But alas, such ghoulish – and expensive – treasures were mere fantasy to a boy whose mother was a stay-at-home mom and whose father scarcely made sixty bucks a week in a Nashville tool & die shop. So I resorted to the next best thing… a cheap latex monster mask from the local Grants department store.
I remember how me, my little brother, and my cousin, Donna, would gather around the big six-by-three foot bin in the center of the Halloween section. It was waist deep with every monster mask imaginable! Of course, by today’s standards, they were badly molded and painted even worse, but in our youthful eyes they were horrifying works of art. I remember we would stand there for thirty minutes or so, while our mothers shopped, trying on every one… werewolf, caveman, skeleton, pirate, even Satan, complete with cheesy goatee and horns. It didn’t matter that a nest of brown recluse spiders or a rabid rats could have made their home amid the layers upon layers of latex, or that someone stricken with tuberculosis might have tried on the masks before us… we absolutely had to try them on ourselves. That’s what you did in the costume section of stores back in the late 60s… you tried out the merchandise before you plopped down your precious $1.49.
I found the perfect mask in that bin at Grants; a dark-haired, white-faced, fang-snapping vampire. It didn’t exactly look like Bela Lugosi, but it would do for a novice blood-sucker. The fangs had a trace or two of painted blood, but it didn’t seem sufficiently bloody to suit my taste. You could buy a white and red tube of official “Vampire Blood” for a buck, but Mama claimed she could make just as good with a bottle of Karo syrup and red food coloring. She was right. It was messy, but satisfyingly bloody to the max, covering the lower regions of the rubber mask with glistening gore. Barnabas Collins eat your undead heart out! I thought, donning an old black overcoat and, with treat bag in hand, hurried out into the autumn night.
Of course, as with the Batman masks of my buddies a couple of years previous, the full-face latex mask was not the most comfortable or functional of disguises. Before I made my third stop, I was perspiring terribly and my hair was soaked with sweat. And the mask was a bit too large for an eight-year-old. The eye holes tended to misalign at the most inopportune moment, causing me to stumble blindly in the darkness. I found myself falling, head over heels, into drainage ditches more than once. I even tripped over Mrs. Green’s front gate, snagging my shin on a rusty nail. But did I give up and run home crying to Mama? Heck no! Blood-poisoning be danged! I was trick-or-treating and I was getting my share of the sugary booty, come hell or high water. So onward we trudged, oblivious to our surroundings, yearning for the satisfying sound of candy hitting the bottom of our Kroger grocery bags.
3. Razor Blades, Needles, and Rat Poison… Oh My!: 1969 was the first Halloween that shook me by the youthful shoulders and said “Boy, things can be downright dangerous out there if you don’t watch out!” After returning home from trick-or-treating that night, my mother informed us that the local news had reported a rash of sabotaged candy in the area. So we dumped the contents of our bags on the kitchen table and began the sorting process.
Not that this was something new. My brother and I always sorted our haul of the night into various categories. First there was the good stuff; candy bars. Snickers, Babe Ruths, Butterfingers! Peanut M&Ms, not the lame plain ones. Almond Joys if we were lucky. Then there were the Tootsie Roll products, including Tootsie Pops. After that there were usual generic sweets; jawbreakers, gum, rope-handled suckers (remember those?), and black and orange wrapped peanut butter kisses. Then there was the odd apple or homemade popcorn ball.
That Halloween, after the reverent act of treat separation was performed, Mama inspected each piece for suspicious tampering. Luckily, she found none. After my brother had gone to bed, my pestering finally broke down my mother’s tight-lipped secrecy and she flat-out told me why she was being so cautious. A little boy in Nashville had bitten into an apple and a double-edged razor blade had wedged firmly between his upper and lower teeth, slicing through the gums, clear to bone. On the other side of the city, sewing needles had been discovered in candy bars. I must admit, it rattled my innocent outlook and made me wonder what sort of sickos would get pleasure out of inflicting pain and torment on children like myself. From that moment on, Halloween still held its appeal and excitement, but I always wondered if the smiling man or woman sporting the treat bowl was a cherished neighbor… or a sadistic fiend out to do me harm.
4. The Night of the Demented Clown: One of the best things about Halloween in the 60s and early 70s was the freedom we enjoyed when we went trick-or-treating. Our parents didn’t follow us around in the family car or escort us to the front porch of each house. We were out there in the darkness on our own, roaming from residence to residence, from one end of town to the other. Our parents didn’t even know where we were – or were particularly concerned, for that matter – until we returned with a bag brimming with candy several hours later. It was a simpler time then, full of innocence and trust. Nothing like the grim times we now live in.
That night in 1970, me and my pals had covered nearly every house in town and ended up at an unfamiliar residence at the outer limits; one we had never visited before. When we arrived at the door, a woman regarded us excitedly, smiling almost unnervingly. “Come in, kids!” she said, holding the door open. “My husband wants to see your costumes.” Well, we weren’t accustomed to actually waltzing into someone’s house, satisfied to take our share of candy on the porch-side of the front door. We looked at one another, a little puzzled, but we went in anyway. If my mother had known, she would have probably gone into a conniption fit right then and there.
The living room of the single-level ranch house was decorated with fake cobwebs, several carved jack-o-lanterns, and the lights were low. Reclining in a ratty armchair in the middle of the room was an overweight, middle-aged man dressed like a clown. He wore a rainbow afro wig and his pudgy face was painted white with garish red lips and bright blue and green circles around his eyes. As we approached, he giggled crazily. “Come here, children,” he urged, his eyes sparkling in the gloom. “Come here and let me take a look at you.” His maniacal cackling sent a shiver down our spines, but we loved it! It was the most delicious thrill we’d ever had on a Halloween outing. Never mind that he could have been the most notorious child molester/murderer on the face of the earth, with dozens of tiny graves hidden beneath the crawlspace of his house. At that moment, the thought never crossed our mind. We were hypnotized by the sheer surrealness of the situation and the wonderful chills it was subjecting us to.
As each of us stood before him, his eyes would examine us from head to toe, and he would then dump a fistful of candy into our bag. “Nice!” he would giggle and then the next would step forward for his turn. Afterward, his wife escorted us back to the front door and we once again stood in the cool darkness of the evening. “That was so cool!” one of my fellow trick-or-treaters exclaimed and we readily agreed. Years later, however, I saw the foolishness of that simple Halloween visitation. I shudder at the thought, and not just at the memory of that scary encounter.
5. The Last Real Halloween: The Halloween of 1972 was the last one I spent on the street, treat bag in hand, and dressed as my favorite monster or superhero. In my town, teenagers dressing up and trick-or-treating were frowned upon. It simply wasn’t a good idea; the cut-off date seemed to be the age of thirteen. I was 12 that year and I knew it was the end of an era, at least for me it was.
So I indulged in as much macabre celebration as possible, as if wanting to make the most of this last year of official trick-or-treating. I savored my Famous Monsters magazines, watched my black & white monster reels on the 8mm projector I ordered from Johnson Smith, and built every glow-in-the-dark Aurora monster model the local Sears carried on their model shelves. I decided to be Frankenstein’s hulking Monster that year (despite the fact that I was the smallest boy in my class at school) and planned to hit every house I could before nine o’clock rolled around.
In the back of my mind, I knew this was my last chance… that things would be different from that point on. I didn’t understand the concept of “coming-of-age” then, but I reckon that was what was taking place during that October of ’72. I’d outgrown my Hot Wheels and G.I. Joes the year before and I secretly knew that the adults around me expected me to outgrow Halloween, as well as all that silly ‘monster’ stuff that decorated my bedroom and occupied my mind on a constant basis. I knew my father, at least, expected such a seamless transition from child to young man.
Luckily, my mother knew better. Her love of horror – both in books and movies – provided an ally and supporter within the household. So, while that was my final Halloween in participation, it was never the final one in my psyche. From that point, and even to this very day, I continued to love vampires, werewolves, and creatures from Amazon lagoons the same as I always had. And I was never chastised or condemned because of it.
Now I live and enjoy Halloween through my children. Their ages are varied – 13, 7, and 3 – something that perplexes most folks, considering that I turn 52 in November. Sure, my peers enjoy the limited access of their grandchildren while I chase my kids around the house and watch them grow up in today’s world. It is their youth that perpetuates my own. Their grins of anticipation at the mere mention of Halloween tend to spark my joy as well. When they approach a door, dressed like a super-hero or fairy princess, I can’t help but put myself in their place and recall the excitement of the hunt and those distant nights of All Hallows Eve on a crisp Southern night.
– Ronald Kelly