I first heard Norman Partridge’s name when talking to Norman Prentiss at my second Borderlands Bootcamp in 2010. It came up by happenstance. During dinner, Norman was talking about how someone at the most recent World Horror Convention had mistaken him for Norman Partridge, because of their similar first names. Norman Prentiss‘ wistful response was, “I only wish I was Norman Partridge.”
Not only has Norman Prentiss been a wonderful friend and editor, he’s also been a trustworthy guide to powerful voices in the genre. His endorsement certainly put Norman Partridge’s name on my TBR list. So, the following Halloween, when folks started chattering about this Halloween novel which had been published a few years before—Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge—I figured it would be the perfect entry point. And, boy howdy…what an entry point it was. About the time I hit this beautiful block of prose, which snapped with the ferocity of high-voltage wire, I was hooked…
Picture if you will: The flipside of a game played by a pack of teenage hoodlums in a rusty Chrysler. It’s a solo B-side for a thing born in a cornfield, a requiem for the shambling progeny of the black and bloody earth. Because the October Boy has his own game. It’s played with pitchforks and switchblades and fear, and its first scrimmage is set to begin on a quiet strip of two-lane that marks the midnight train to town. For this creature with the fright mask is both trick and treat. He comes with pockets filled with candy, and he carries a knife that carves holes in the shadows, and his race will take him from a lonely country road to an old brick church that waits dead center in the middle of the square…in The Twilight Zone.
Something else which makes this book a delight to read is its point of view structure, which lifts it above the usual novels about pumpkin-headed killers stalking small-town streets. Partridge successfully mixes first person, second person, and third person narratives, all in one story. First of all, we have a ghostly, unnamed first person narrator, telling an unseen audience (you) the story of this town and it’s annual Halloween race to midnight…
A Midwestern town. You know its name. You were born there.
It’s Halloween, 1963… and getting on towards dark. Things are the same as they’ve always been. There’s the main street, the old brick church in the town square, the movie theater—this year with a Vincent Price double-bill. And past all that is the road that leads out of town. It’s black as a licorice whip under an October sky, black as the night that’s coming and the long winter nights that will follow, black as the little town it leaves behind.
The road grows narrow as it hits the outskirts. It does not meander. Like a planned path of escape, it cleaves a sea of quarter-sections planted thick with summer corn.
But it’s not summer anymore. Like I said, it’s Halloween.
All that corn has been picked, shucked, eaten.
All those stalks are dead, withered, dried.
In most places, those stalks would have been plowed under long ago. That’s not the way it works around here. You remember….
Once the novel’s twist is revealed, the meaning (though I could be reading too much into it) behind the point of view structure seems clear. All the best and bravest young men each year are sacrificed to the meat-grinder which keeps this town running. So we get the sense that our ghostly narrator is one of the former participants in the hunt for the October Boy, speaking to other former participants, as they observe this year’s hunt from some ethereal plane. Whether or not Partridge meant that, it’s a masterclass in point of view.
I could go on and on quoting bits from this wonderful book. Partridge’s style struck me—hard. It’s not something I could ever imitate, but the way the words crackled off every page enthralled me in its crazy blend of Ray Bradbury’s lyricism and Robert E. Howard’s driving prose, leaving me hungry for more.
Suffice to say, Dark Harvest is still one of my favorite Halloween novels, and I re-read it often around that spooky time of year. Something in it always strikes a deep chord inside. It’s a tightly-constructed, taut story full of tension and plenty of two-fisted violence, and Norman perfectly delivers a noirish dead-end town which annually sacrifices its best young men for prosperity (a nifty little metaphor for how small towns eat their own), but by the tale’s end, he also gives us something to root for.
Partridge offers us hope. Not only in the form of protagonists Pete and Kelly (the latter who serves up satisfying justice with a brakeman’s club) but also—in a delightful twist—Partridge offers hope in the October Boy himself. As we learn the truth about the October Boy, we see how this manufactured bogey-man turns the tables on a corrupt town, refusing to play their twisted game the way he’s supposed to.
Hope isn’t the only literary treat Partridge offers, however. Many of his works—both novel-length and short fiction—peer fearlessly and unflinchingly into the darkened corners of our own souls. Enter Norman Partridge’s first novel, Slippin’ into Darkness. It stands as one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read, (in its own way far more disturbing than an Ed Lee or Ray Garton offering) and what makes it so disturbing is the frightening relatability in its pages.
Most of us, (hopefully) have never been caught up in the violent sexual abuse depicted in this novel, or been party to debasing anyone as the gang of high school boys do April Lousie Destino. But, I dare say many of us are all too aware of the darkness which lurks inside of us, the kind of darkness which only needs the fellowship of others to come out and play. Deep inside, I’m sure we all subconsciously fear the power of a “mob” mentality, and what we might be capable of if swept up in the momentum of others’ actions.
Is this novel a ghost story, or about small-town revenge? We’re never quite sure what is supernatural and what isn’t. We’re teased with the possibility that April—a high school beauty whose gang-raping is filmed by a man who grows up to produce underage porn—has come back from the dead to exact vengeance against those who ruined her life. The reality is not supernatural at all…but perhaps far more disturbing, because of it.
Two of Partridge’s other novels—The Ten Ounce Siesta and Saguaro Riptide—feature a character I fell in love with immediately. My only complaint with ex-boxer turned enforcer Jack Baddalach is that we never got to see more of him. By the time he has to literally chew his way through a rattlesnake to escape certain death locked in the trunk of a car (seriously, that happened), I was just as enamored with him as I was another “Jack.”
Imagine my disappointment when I searched for more Jack Baddalach novels, and, alas, found none. It’s a shame, too, because I still feel Jack Baddalach represents what Norman Partridge is so good at: stories that read like a multi-dish combo with several side-platters, a whole crazy mix of just about anything you could ever want in a genre story. I mean, seriously—read this insane back cover copy of Saguaro Riptide….
Welcome to the Saguaro Riptide Motel… It’s a seedy little surf joint in Arizona where the not-so-elite meet-for the biggest disharmonic convergence since the invention of gunpower. Ex-boxing champ Jack “Battle-ax” Baddalach will be there. So will Muslim hit man Woodrow Saad Muhammad. Sheriff Wyetta Earp is due as well, she of the black belt and bad manners. And Major Kate Benteen, a bikini-clad war hero who was once an Olympic diver, is in room 23. Between them, they’ve got lots of fingers in a two-million-dollar mafia pie. Everyone wants the cash. Everyone’s got a gun. And not even a guest appearance by a shotgun-toting Elvis impersonator will keep things from getting ugly…
By the time I get to “shotgun-toting Elvis impersonator” I’m thinking: When is this movie coming out!! Hello, Netflix? Are you listening? Suffice to say, if Patridge ever sees fit to write another Jack Baddalach novel, I’ll be among the first to jump on it.
His short stories are his true strength. Varied, diverse, often mixing several different genres into one, they’re an absolute delight to read. He’s also the master of the non-ending: when the story simply comes to a halt, but rather than feeling unfinished, we realize Partridge has simply shown us all he needs to, leaving us to come up with the rest on our own.
Like in his story “Mr. Fox” (Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales and The Man with the Barbed Wire Fists), when a woman—betrothed to a man whom she believes is nothing but a polite milquetoast—discovers her intended is really the serial killer she’s fallen in love with. Partridge leaves us with them sitting at a bar, realizing the truth about each other, as another man—in near hysteria—pulls his pistol. Partridge doesn’t tell us the ultimate ending, and we don’t need to know it. We just know that something bad and bloody and final is going to happen next.
Or in “Black Leather Kites,” (Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales, Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season) in which a small-town deputy and former boxer (who also likes to use nunchucks) and his brother-in-law do battle with leather-bat creatures on Halloween night. The story’s final line is Deputy Nardo whispering “Batter up…” as the bat creatures swoop in for the kill.
Partridge also excels at twisting expectations on their head. Like in the short story “Coyotes” (The Man with the Barbed Wire Fists) when the “bad guys” and the “good guys” turns out to be a much more complicated situation than we initially think. He also mixes and matches genres, such as in “Do Not Hasten to Bid Me Adieu” (The Man with the Barbed Wire Fists), in which the infamous Dracula comes face to face with a stone-cold hardcase killer who puts the immortal count off his feed. “Return of the Shroud” reads like an Old Time Radio Play on par with The Shadow. You want Playboy Centerfold zombies? You got it, in “In Beauty, Like the Night” (Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales, The Man with the Barbed Wire Fists). A story about an undead Howard Hughes? Enjoy “Undead Origami.”
Of the three Norman Patridge short story collections I have (his out of print collection Bad Intentions a little too pricey for me at the moment), my favorite has to be Lesser Demons, published by Subterranean Press in 2010. The title story, “Lesser Demons,” is cosmic horror done only the way Norman Partridge could. “The House Inside” is something you’d expect from The Twilight Zone or a Ray Bradbury short story. The sun’s exploding, and while the cosmic rays have killed all humans, it’s brought to life action figures and dolls, and has mutated spiders into monsters. The “Iron Dead” features another Partridge character I would love to see again, a Solomon Kane-type character, with a mission to destroy hell-spawn, an iron hand forged in hell.
Though he hasn’t posted anything new in awhile, I’d also suggest perusing his blog, American Frankenstein. Not only did Norman post a lot of great stuff about his pulp fiction influences, but he wrote several insightful reflections on writing and publishing, essays which are must-reads for any new writer.
Join the hunt for the October Boy. Meet Jack Baddalach. Get your Norman Partridge fix today.
Short Story collections:
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Need, was released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.