Author C.V. Hunt is the owner of Grindhouse Press, and from what I could determine is known primarily for her bizarro fiction, including the wonderfully-titled novellas Cockblock, How to Kill Yourself, and Baby Hater (which is about an infertile woman who becomes a baby-punching vigilante, and thus has shot right up to the top of my “must-read” list).
Her 2019 novella Halloween Fiend, though, which I just had to dig into in the lead-up to my favorite holiday of the year, is a bit less out there conceptually, being sort of like a Halloweeny, folk-horrory, monstery take on Shirley Jackson’s classic story “The Lottery.” It’s quite short, only about 110 pages or so, but the vibe of it really got me into the October frame of mind. I will say, though, that while it is very Halloween-forward, I’m not sure I’d call it particularly fun or funny; it’s more grim and gloomy, with a main character whose fatalism and passivity make him a little hard to root for.
The story is set in a relatively modern but indeterminate time period (no one seems to have computers or cell phones, for example, though they do have landlines), in a very small burg called Strang (as in, Strange without the E). Only about a hundred people remain in the town; if residents die or move away (which nobody ever seems to), their houses stay abandoned. There are a few essential businesses—a grocery store, a diner, a bar—but all are sparsely patronized.
It’s never made clear how long the curse that hovers over Strang has been going on, but it’s apparently been long enough for the few dozen residents left to have become complacent about their lot in life. Basically, a shapeshifting creature terrorizes the town nightly, and because of its habit of reciting Halloween-adjacent phrases and rhymes, the townsfolk just refer to it as “Halloween.” Most people just see it as an ever-moving blur, but sometimes someone catches a horrifying glimpse of what might be its true form.
Every night, each household must put out a “treat” for Halloween, in the form of a small animal, which the creature devours. This is done, presumably, to keep Halloween from feeding on the humans in town. But once a year, on All Hallows’ Eve, the town officials in Strang put on a fall festival, complete with games and hayrides and food trucks; only at the end of the night, someone “gets the dot,” meaning they get randomly chosen to be sacrificed to Halloween (in an obvious tip of the hat to the aforementioned Shirley Jackson story). This annual ritual has been going on for as long as most people can remember.
The character through which we see the story unfold is an overweight, middle-aged man named Barry Johnson. His mother was taken by Halloween when he was just a kid, and ever since then, he’s lived in his childhood home with his aging father, a cranky old coot who’s confined to a wheelchair and is one of those guys who will shut off his oxygen tank just so he can chain smoke. Barry works a dead-end job at the only grocery store in town, and has a crush on a woman named Rhonda, who works as a waitress at the diner, but is far too timid to ask her out.
He’s been going through the motions of his depressing life: working a job he hates, caring for a father who incessantly complains and berates him, and raising an endless stream of guinea pigs to feed to Halloween. He’s also becoming more and more convinced that Halloween is taunting him specifically, for reasons that he can’t begin to fathom. The day of the fall festival is fast approaching, and Barry is dreading going through the whole ordeal again.
But this year, a few things turn out differently than usual; for one thing, the town council decides to bring in an outside company to set up some rides at the festival, which means that there will be a few strangers in Strang for the first time in ages. Everyone in town knows the rules: no one is supposed to tell any outsiders about what’s going on in the town. But things end up getting a bit more complicated when Barry is cajoled into housing two of the “carnies” who come to set up the rides.
This was a short, suitably spooky, and entertaining little slice of Halloween goodness. Because it’s so brief, there isn’t a hell of a lot of character development, especially of the peripheral characters, and there also isn’t much backstory given about the history of the town or why Halloween stalks this place in particular. In that way, it reads slightly more like a fable, and actually seems to be satirizing (at least to a degree) the extent to which people can eventually become compliant and apathetic toward any circumstance, no matter how horrific. As I mentioned, the main character isn’t terribly sympathetic due to his brooding resignation, but that’s sort of a big point of the story, and he does get a bit more proactive as the tale goes on. There were some grammatical errors scattered throughout that were slightly distracting, but definitely not the worst I’ve seen in that regard.
All in all, if you’re looking for a succinct little shot in the arm of holiday horror to put you in the mood for the season, then Halloween Fiend should do rather nicely.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.