I first encountered Al Sarrantonio the same way others most likely did; in his Orangefield Cycle, which regales the tale of the strange Pumpkin Capitol of Orangefield, New York, through the novels Halloweenland, Hallows Eve, Horrorween and the novellas The Pumpkin Boy and Hornets. In Orangefield, strange things happen around Halloween. People die mysteriously, create suicide pacts, conduct pagan rituals, and see strange things from other worlds. Like the mythical Pumpkin Boy, a robot with a pumpkin for a head. Or Samhain himself, trying to take advantage of Halloween’s thin dimensional walls in his repeated attempts to sneak into our world as the advance scout of an unholy army lead by something far worse. In many ways, like Ray Bradbury’s Green Town mythos, Charles Grant’s Oxrun Station and Gary Braunbeck’s Cedar Hill cycle, Al Sarrantonio’s Orangefield stories helped lay a template for the creation of my own little mythos.
Also, his Orangefield Cycle and several other short stories serve up a nice contemporary flavor of Bradbury’s favorite time of year—All Hallow’s Eve. His characters are more modern and not covered with the same idealistic gloss as perhaps Will Halloway or Tom Skelton (Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Halloween Tree), but in Sarrantonio’s autumn stories there’s all the crisp fallen leaves and tart apple cider reminiscent of Bradbury in Full Halloween Glory, especially in one of my favorite short stories of his, “The Spook Man,” which is a wonderful homage to monsters, Halloween, and the frightful things which lurk on the dark of All Hallow’s Eve.
His prose had a huge impact on me at a time when I was trying to write an insane mish-mash style attempting to cram together Bradbury’s lyricism and Lovecraft’s purple prose (yeah—it was pretty painful reading). Sarrantonio’s prose at its best is tight and descriptive at once, so incredibly precise and vivid. Case in point, the following passage from October:
And so this day, another in three weeks of days, under an autumn sky of clear, deep sapphire, among living trees that seemed to breath beneath his touch, pulling apples like tight-skinned uteri bearing the juice of life within, with Ben Meyer passing him, slapping him on the back, smiling on him like a father, and Ben’s wife bringing lunches up to them from the house at the bottom of the hill, climbing slowly through the still frame of the movie that was this beautiful day, bearing a basket covered with blue-checked cloth, with sandwiches and a red- topped gray thermos with hot coffee inside, with pie and fruit scraps for Rusty. As they ate, they watched Rusty and Ben’s terrier, Rags, play, run around the apple trees, kick through dry leaves, with tall, wide cotton-ball clouds bearing majestically overhead from Vancouver to New York and beyond. New Polk was spread below them like a toy town, tall white church steeple, houses colored from a child’s crayon box, blue and red and yellow, trees blotched yellow and brown and red; at the edge of the town the university like a town itself, a spread of green grass, perfect buildings, brown clock tower, white face, ebony arms, little cars moving through New Polk like toys…
I’m certainly not there yet in my own writing, (and maybe I never will be, but that won’t stop me from trying) but reading Sarrantonio’s prose over and over has urged me to aspire to this same precise imagery. Lyricism doesn’t mean overwrought prose; vivid imagery doesn’t have to be dense and impenetrable. It can be precise and targeted. Sarrantonio’s prose showed me this.
Also, Sarrantonio’s novels Totentanz and The Boy With the Penny Eyes offered me early templates for how to explore matters of good, evil and faith in horror fiction, much as Maurice Broaddus recently shared about Stephen King’s Desperation on TOR.com. Totentanz—Sarrantonio’s own take on Something Wicked This Way Comes—takes the allure of “Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show” and amps it up, as a carnival arrives in the small town of Montvale and begins offering all of its citizens their deepest, darkest, basest desires. More visceral and graphic than Something Wicked, Totentanz also grapples with the corrupting desire for vengeance, and how there’s a spark inside us (often ignored and underutilized) placed there by something Other, a spark which, if raised to a flame, Evil cannot face. But, at all times, the story is most important. Whatever Sarrantonio is saying about faith in this novel, he’s saying it through the story, and serving it, first.
The Boy With the Penny Eyes also tackles the nature of faith, as well as the duality of good and evil. In it, Unitarian minister Jacob Beck struggles with a crisis of faith. He feels there isn’t anything left to say about the universal struggle between good and evil, that he’s run out of words, no one cares about what he has to say, and even worse: he doesn’t care. He’s no longer sure if he believes the goods he’s pedaling.
And then into his life comes Billy Potter, the boy with the penny-colored eyes. Billy’s an enigma. Though not outwardly malovent, there’s something… missing in Billy Potter. He’s empty. When people look into his penny-colored eyes, they feel adrift and lost, as if falling into a deep, black hole. Suddenly, Reverend Beck is thrust back into the middle of supernatural mystery as he struggles to understand the terrifying mystery of Billy Potter.
The wonderful twist in this novel is that Billy, himself, isn’t evil. Somehow at birth one person was split into two, and that thing everyone senses is missing in Billy, which makes him seem empty, soulless, and therefore alien? His evil, other half, without which he isn’t quite human. People feared him instinctively not because he was evil… but because he was missing that thing we all have inside.
Perhaps Sarrantonio’s greatest strength is his own brand of Weird, especially in his short fiction. In his introduction to The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, Michael Moorcock says of weird fiction: “You know it when you read it.” Weird Fiction resists a pat definition even more than horror fiction, so calling Sarrantonio’s brand of “weird” unique begs a explanation I’m not sure I can give, but I’ll try, regardless.
It’s best to think of Sarrantonio’s short stories as all occurring in their own little alternate universes, completely separate from each other and our own. These worlds may look like ours… but they aren’t. These worlds exist in The Twilight Zone. Or in The Outer Limits. Or One Step Beyond, or Beyond the Veil. These are Tales from the Darkside, and they occur with their own set of rules and a sense of logic unique to each story, a logic which often defies ours.
I don’t mean to imply that Sarrantonio’s short fiction apes from the anthology shows I just name-dropped, but very simply, his short stories have a weird-pulp feel which makes them eminently entertaining and just flat-out fun to read. And in the course of my horror “education” that was something I needed constant reminding: this is supposed to be fun. Granted, everyone has a different definition of “fun” and yes, horror can address the same “big” questions about the “human experience,” but at the same time: we’re supposed to be having some fun doing this, right? And it’s never more apparent to me than when I’m reading his short fiction that Al Sarrantonio, quite frankly, is having a lot of fun, the kind of fun those old horror anthology shows offered.
I’ve already mentioned “The Spook Man,” a beautiful homage to Halloween, monsters, and things which go bump in the night. “The Electric Fat Boy”—about robotic replacements for kids who don’t quite fit in—could’ve been written by Rod Serling himself. “Boxes” is about two boys’ fascination with a man who collects boxes of all kinds, and how that fascination is their undoing. In “Bogy,” a club of boys who worship creeps and spooks set out to discover WHY Halloween seems to have lost its shivers in their town. In “The Ropy Thing,” a little girl’s wish serves up the end of all mankind. In “Summer” a boy wishes summer would never end…and he gets his wish, in spades, as the weather gets hotter and hotter as summer drags on forever.
And then there’s Sarrantonio’s very unique take (in my opinion) on the zombie story, Skeletons (In fact, it’s one of the few “rising dead” novels I’ve really enjoyed, right along with Brian Keene’s The Rising). I mean, c’mon—the Earth passes through a strange radioactive cloud and suddenly the dead rise everywhere. That’s always a recipe for fun.
But these things aren’t shambling, brainless zombies, or monsters from another dimension. No, EVERYONE is back from the dead, from Genghis Khan to Elvis Presley, from Stalin to John Lennon, and they all want to be Number One. Really, the novel’s not frightening at all (though it does have some sufficiently emotional scenes, the kind a well-written apocalyptic story can offer); it’s more an interesting and unique character study of historical figures and how they’d navigate in this world if they returned. But also, it’s just a flat-out fun story.
That’s not to say Sarantonio’s fiction isn’t disturbing, by any means. October is one of my favorite novels—again, Sarantonio channeling Bradbury’s Halloween Spirit into something darker, with sharper teeth—and the ancient evil which moves through the story, possessing people and then discarding them like old skins, is certainly shiver-inducing.
Sarrantonio’s first short story collection, Toybox, offers us the uneasy tale “The Man With Legs,” about a…thing…which needs people’s legs. His second collection, Hornets and Others, boasts “The Only” (which appeared first in one of Charles L. Grant’s Greystone Bay collections), regaling the tale of a broken man’s obsession with a childhood rumor…an obsession which turns him into the rumor. Also, “The Coat” (another contribution to Grant’s Greystone Bay series), which gives us a very unsettling front row view of a man possessed by a coat which wants, most of all, blood. and “The Children of Cain,” in which a boy is slowly corrupted by a young psychopath’s enthralling influence. One of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever read.
Then there’s the Sarrantonio stories which simply scream off the map into Bizzaro World. How about “Billy the Fetus,” the story which reveals that the legendary William H. Bonney started his killing spree WAY EARLIER than recorded by history? Or a similar story, “Roger in the Womb,” about a fetus which decides he likes it in the womb…so why leave? In “The Glass Man” a man wakes up to find he is, inexplicably, made entirely of glass, and he learns how quickly fame and notoriety sours. In “The Quiet Ones” all the humans of the world are slowly abducted by a sub-human species living underground, snatching victims through sidewalks, streets…the very ground itself. These things have been waiting for their turn to live above ground, and they’re tired of waiting. Time for us to switch places.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of Al Sarrantonio’s work. Do yourself a huge favor and venture into his strange worlds. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed, though you might be disoriented, off-balance, and uneasy. If so, don’t try adjusting the dial. Sarrantonio is in control. You’re just along for the ride….but what a ride it will be.
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance Magazine. His column Horror 101 is featured in Lamplight Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014 and Through A Mirror, Darkly, in June 2015. His novella Mystery Road is forthcoming in limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications, and he’s currently working on his first novel.