Saturday, May 20, 2017

Hungry Haunts - Robert Bloch's The Hungry House and Pumpkin

Speaking of haunted houses, as I was, sort of, in the Knock Knock post, I've been thinking about ghosts and haunts. Ghosts are disturbing, bringing into question the order of the universe and all, if you think about it. But they're not REALLY scary. Or can they be?

"Knock, Knock" ultimately offered a science fiction explanation as Doctor Who always does,  so, while the house was deadly for that reason, generally ghosts just tend to appear and repeat the circumstances of their deaths or bid a final farewell at 3 a.m.

Except when they don't. I don't know that it's Psycho author Robert Bloch at his absolute best, but I recently revisited a couple of Bloch hauntings that make you think twice about ghosts and their threat level.

First it was the 1951 story "The Hungry House," originally from the April 1951 issue of the magazine  Imagination but collected in Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural by Marvin Kay. It's a thick and handy volume.

 I came to the reading by way of TV. I recorded a  number of episodes of Thriller from Me TV recently and ran across an episode called "The Hungry Glass" with William Shatner and Russell Johnson on my DVR. Captain Kirk and The Professor from Gilligan's Island. Who could pass that up? Oh and Ellie May herself, Donna Douglas.

I liked it fairly well. My old friends John Scoleri and Peter Enfantino at A Thriller a Day seem to have given it a two-and-one-half Boris Karloff head rating, and that's a good benchmark to it's quality.

The episode inverts the short story a bit. In the prose story, the house's secrets are a mystery, while in Thriller we open with a flashback that offers hints of what lurks within the walls or the house's hidden mirrors, hence the re-naming to glass.

Ultimately the secrets prove dangerous to the protagonists, and there's a bit of a shiver in both versions. I think I like the short better because the mystery piques curiosity, and the odd events puzzle a bit until answers start to emerge from a real estate agent who knows all but has, of course, held back the truth. He had a lease to get signed. I'll stop spoiling there, though.

Maybe the antagonist of Bloch's much later "Pumpkin" is not a ghost but a zombie with a very small Lovecraftian tinge but there's a bit of that back-from-the-grave underpinning at least. I think I like it better than "Hungry House."

It appeared in the December 1984 issue of Twilight Zone magazine, and it's collected in Block's collection Midnight Pleasures and again in October Dreams II: A Celebration of Halloween.

I'm pretty sure I read it when it came out and remember feeling nonplussed. I was a kid then and invincible, past that phase of pulling the covers to my throat even on hot nights to prevent exposure to vampires.

The magazine's tagline suggests editors might have felt it was a little archaic: "A ghoulish little tale in the grand old Halloween tradition."

But old Bloch tradition really is grand, written to chill but with a devilish gleam in his eye or a curl up on the corner of the lips.

It's truly a tale by the writer who joked that he had the heart of a small boy...that he kept in a jar on his shelf.

It follows David, a recently downsized accountant, whose wife decides they'll save rent if they move into his uncle's rural house that's still in the family. David lived there as a kid long enough to piss off the old man across the street who had a tendency to head into the woods with a creepy old book under his arm.

Flashbacks reveal eerie encounters and thunder and lightning and hint there's a good reason why David doesn't want his son out at night, especially not around Halloween looking for a pumpkin to carve as a jack-o-lantern.

There's pretty good characterization from three points of view as well as atmosphere all building to an icy-needle-stab-to-the-spine of a last line that's right up there with Psycho chapter-ender and film shower-scene inspiration: "It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head."

I loved "Pumpkin" when I read it again the other day, my youthful invincible delusions long faded and my mindset and imagination just right for a dark little journey.

Maybe bothstories suggest if ghosts are out of the grave, they should concern us at least on the page, and maybe they're not to be dismissed by writers contemplating eerie tales even now. 

I'm glad my whims steered me to Bloch again. A friend and I have lamented the lack of Bloch collections in ebook form, though a graphic novel adaptation of "Pumpkin" is out there from IDW. Hopefully the lack of Bloch digital prose will be remedied soon and that legacy of fear won't be lost.

Kids feeling invincible and impossible to scare just now deserve to have the work of a grand master around in a few years when they're finally aware of mortality and ready to curl up and shudder.


1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

I haven't read BLoch in a while. I should reread a few stories. I still want to write a good haunted house tale. I've tiptoed around it a few times but never really gone for it.

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