Halloween Costumes: Humanity, Identity, and the Monstrous

Another Halloween has come and gone, but in this corner of the internet, Halloween never ends. I was particularly proud of my costume this year, and in thinking about how I’d share it, I realized something: the majority of my Halloween costumes have been quite… monstrous.

I take a classic view of Halloween: costumes are meant to be scary. I was never one to dress as a princess or box of crayons, opting even as a child for creatures that walk the night. I distinctly remember my ninth Halloween when I wore a homemade werewolf costume, with fur tearing through my flannel shirt and a wolf mask, to a Halloween party for children at the local community center. None of my friends knew me until I lifted the mask. I was someone else—no, something else, entirely. And I loved it.

Recent costumes have taken advantage of face paint rather than masks, but they’re still monstrous: Harley Quinn, a zombie, a sugar skull, and this year, the Babadook. So, you see, my costume choices are not only creepy but also monstrous.

There’s a pleasure in subsuming your identity into something foreign, which people like me take advantage of on Halloween. Perhaps this is partially the writer in me; after all, I spend my favorite moments immersed in fictional characters’ lives anyway. So it goes with Halloween: you can become anyone, or anything, and live almost vicariously through this new being. Halloween offers us the chance to melt away our identities into something else, to transform… to become something other, an annual becoming of which the Red Dragon could only dream.

I’ve always been fascinated by the monstrous. The term monstrous, you know, actually comes not from horror but from a notion of hybridity: something that is two things at once. Hence the perfect monsters, to us, retain some semblance of the human while also being decidedly inhuman, which is what makes them so horrific. Sure, we all love our Cthulhus and our chupacabras, but the monsters we come back to over and over again are those which retain the human form while being simultaneously, and unnervingly, inhuman (vampires, werewolves, witches, Frankenstein…).

That, I realized, is how I’ve been subconsciously choosing my costumes. Harley Quinn is human, sure, but she’s also a clown—something removed from humanity. A zombie was once a human but is no more. A sugar skull? Sure, same thing. The Babadook, being a boogeyman character, looks like a human but surely is something far, far different.

What is our fascination with the monstrous? The inhuman masquerading in human form? I think it plays on our deepest fears. Something that does not look human will flag something in our brains right away, but what about something that looks human, that could almost be human… but isn’t? That type of creature tricks you into believing it’s human until it’s too late to realize your mistake. What of the shadow figure in your bedroom watching you sleep, or the grinning man in the top hat whose mouth is just… far… too… large?

And what happens when we get to pretend to be something completely other? Something so far removed from ourselves that we can dissolve our own humanity and exist in an implausible realm where anything is possible? What happens when I can roam the streets of North Hollywood as the Babadook? Some laughs and disturbed looks, apparently, and even the odd photo or two, but that’s not the whole of it. I am me, but I am not me; I am become something entirely other, a being that can exist only on Halloween night. My face is painted and no one sees me; they see only the monster I have become. A monster roams these streets masquerading as Joanna Parypinski, but it is not she. It is a deception. You realize only too late your mistake in assuming that it was, indeed, a mere human. It grins at you, grinning clownishly, with only death in its eyes.

And I wish, oh I wish, that Halloween were more than one night a year.

I mean, who doesn’t want the chance to wander around looking like this and freaking out everyone they meet?


Happy post-Halloween, everyone, and remember: if it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook!


Indian Summer

This is the time of year—you know the one. When the leaves turn and the air makes its subtle shift into fall. But not here. These are the brutal weeks, the drought’s revenge. Fool me once, okay, surely fall is just around the corner. Fool me twice, shame on me for forgetting there is no fall in the land of always summer.

These are the weeks, late August and September, when you think summer is over, but—surprise!—it isn’t. These are the weeks of hellish heat. Of sweat-slicked hours and lukewarm showers.

My thermostat can’t keep up; the red line is off the edge somewhere past ninety. My AC unit can’t keep up; the heat absorbs cool air in its sedating trance. The bare floor bakes. The heavy soporific sponge of heat yet prohibits sleep.

Elsewhere, the world slides into autumn, slides towards beautiful death.

I can’t breathe. My brain is soup. And where is the cool reprieve of sleep? Not here. My skin sweats and sloughs off. My muscles melt. My soul oozes out between pores. My volcanic heart runs lava through my veins. My eyes burn out of my skull but still I cannot close them.

My neighbors turn to skeletons. They float among drowned termites in chlorine. Our pipes evaporate. Two ants feast on the corpse of a third, hungry, mindless, gnawing life away. Trees curl up and die, dry, clawing for the scorched blue sky. The neighbors steam and sink and lie on the pool bottom’s concrete.

Then the dust on the cars, in the windows, on the streets. Coffee ground grime in the cracks of the earth. We water the dead while the living drink their own sweat.

Then the fires on mountaintops. We burn, but we don’t die. We slouch on, live, charred. We feel we must be dead, we feel we missed the freeway exit somewhere back there, and we live but we are not alive. The air is ash and we burn and we listen for the fine soliloquy of death.

It never ends—but we forget that it does. As all things. And when it does, we drink the cool and bask again in the lustful gazes of our neighbors.

Our lizard skin grows back. We breathe the fine clear air and sweep away the dust. And we forget how we ever felt anything but this, anything but this alive.

The Matter of Words

“Words, words, words,” said Hamlet when Polonius asked him what he was reading. To which Polonius asked, “What is the matter, my lord?”

Hamlet never tells us the subject matter of his reading material, but I’m guessing he wasn’t about to say, “The matter is whatever you want it to be” or “These words mean whatever you want them to mean.” In fact, one of the best comic devices used by Shakespeare (and his clever character, Hamlet) was the pun, which can only be funny if a word has a specific meaning—or, rather, double-meaning.

But we do not live anymore in Shakespeare’s time, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in modern culture: the idea that words and language can mean whatever you want them to mean.

This seems to me an effect of poor critical thinking, the current “every opinion is sacred” epidemic, and the narcissism pervading social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. No one needs to look to experts anymore because we all have the internet, so doesn’t that mean we’re all informed enough to come up with the right answer to any problem ourselves?

Let’s look at this issue at a linguistic level. My example here will be the word “blessed,” or, to put it into a context every Facebooker will understand, #blessed. Picture of a couple moving into a new house? #blessed. Got a promotion at work? #blessed. Made a really good soup for dinner after your husband went to the grocery store? #soblessed.

I recently read an article explaining what is wrong with using #blessed in this context: the idea that because you are privileged enough to live a comfortable life, the hand of God must have chosen to grace you, specifically, to receive these blessings. The insidious underbelly of this idea brings up the question: what about the poor and the hungry? Are they not worthy? (In the Bible, these are actually the people who are being called blessed—not those with material comfort). “Blessed” brings with it a wholly different connotation than, say, “grateful” or “lucky.” But when someone tries to write an article explaining how this blatant humblebrag also ties into the sinister idea that those who are well-off deserve to be so by divine order, there is immediate backlash in the comments from people who refuse to entertain criticism of something that they do or say.

These comments include the question, “Why shouldn’t people be allowed to express their gratitude?” (They should, by the way; that’s not the issue. The issue is the manner in which they express their gratitude—and, perhaps, your reading comprehension). Then there are the comments that claim the meaning of “blessed” has changed simply to mean grateful (because they see other people use it in this way, and we all know no one has ever misused language in the history of the internet). Worst of all is a comment claiming that “blessed can mean whatever you want it to mean!”

And here is my problem.

A word does not mean whatever you want it to mean. If we go by this logic, I can claim that “blessed” means “cursed” or that a “chair” is actually a “table.” Now we’re getting into a problem of semiotics, and I’m sure Saussure would roll his eyes our bumbling misapprehension of sign, signifier, and signified. Regardless, you could never convince this person that “blessed” doesn’t mean whatever she wants it to mean because that’s her opinion and, remember, every opinion is sacred!

Everyone is entitled to her opinion, but opinions are not facts and no opinion should be treated as fact, unless there is solid evidence to back up the validity of said opinion. Opinions are wonderful things to have, but they are by no means sacred, and they should by no means be unchangeable. Many people cling fervently to their opinions under the assumption that their opinions should not ever change. Yet isn’t it the mark of intelligence to be willing to change one’s ideas based on new evidence and experience?

Just because you’ve used a certain word in a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t look in a dictionary and change your mind about the definition based on the evidence given by good old Webster. It doesn’t mean you can’t rethink the way that you use certain words and what unintended effects or meanings you might be delivering by using them in that way.

Language is organic and fluid, but words do have specific meanings; they don’t meant whatever you want them to mean. If that were the case, then my life’s passion (writing) would be utterly meaningless. I would never be able to convey a single coherent idea to anyone, for my readers could simply decide that my words mean something else. Sure, people have created the meanings of words because we created language; it is a wholly human construct, a way of rendering reality in a logical way, by an agreed-upon code. But you cannot deny that words carry meanings, resonances, and ideas. Who wants to live in a world where no one is able to communicate with anyone else? We would all be alone and disconnected, screaming pointlessly into a deaf and uncomprehending void.

Coffee & Wine: Elixirs of Creativity

Must a writer always have a drink in her hand? No, but it sure helps.

Coffee and wine are a writer’s best friends, depending on the time of day. We can easily imagine a writer hunched over her desk with a blistering cup of coffee or a glass of red wine. Both seem to be quintessential artifacts of a writer’s life.

In college, wine was my drink of choice, mostly because I never drank coffee. Yes, I was that rare breed of student who never pulled an all-nighter, was always well-rested, and had her essays done on time. I had no need for coffee. I liked to write in the evenings, when my school work was done, and this was best done accompanied by a glass of wine.

Liquor has that wonderful uninhibiting effect that frees your creativity. Let loose, write whatever comes to mind! It’s easy to feel stymied by your own inner critic, and liquor certainly does quiet that voice and let you run wild.

We could theoretically substitute any liquor here, in that case. So why wine? Well, I suppose wine makes us feel classy. Writerly. Dignified. Everything looks more elegant with a glass of wine, doesn’t it? Plus, it doesn’t get you drunk quite as quickly as, say, a glass of whiskey, so you can loosen your mind without immediately putting it to bed.

On the other hand, wine makes me sleepy.

At some point, after college, my writing clock reversed. I could no longer write in the evenings; now, my best writing is done in the morning or early afternoon with a cup of coffee. Perhaps I’ve become solar-powered, that the morning sun recharges my writer’s batteries. But my writing ritual just can’t get off the ground without coffee.

What’s great about coffee is its ability to induce a laser-like focus, energy, and intense joy: the perfect creative concoction. I can literally be wallowing in my own mediocrity one moment, drink some coffee, and suddenly believe that I am a literary genius. This inflated confidence, similar to the uninhibiting effects of wine, can soften the self-doubt; the energy can get your fingers running across the keyboard; and the focus allows me to lose myself in a story for hours at a time, barely resurfacing for air (or food).

In fact, being hungry helps, too. I’m never as inclined to write when I’m full. This is terribly inconvenient for someone who is trying to put on weight and also finish a novel.

Strangely, the uncomfortable effects of coffee (or hunger) seem to feed my workflow. Ever since I quit my job at Starbucks, if I have more than one cup of coffee, I am immediately a jittery mess. Well, bring it on. This is the perfect way to write: when my body is vibrating so much I can’t keep still, and it all comes out through my fingers.

Wine makes me too comfortable. That’s death to my writing. It’s the discomfort that keeps me going, the drive to push on, push on, that you just don’t have when you’re feeling wonderfully complacent (or full). The discomfort of being overly caffeinated has spawned some of my greatest writing binges to date.

Maybe some writers need to feel cozy and at ease to do their best work. Me, I thrive on the discomfort. I suppose if my anxiety is good for anything, it’s that. What else drives us forward but that feeling of discontent? I think writers exist in a state of constant dissatisfaction, and maybe this is where great work comes from. The need to always be better, improve, create a more pleasurable life. Of course, once we’ve found our pleasure, inevitably, we will need to find some other source of dissatisfaction to draw upon for the next great work.

Whatever your poison, it’s best to know what works for you. Perhaps you are one of those writers who cannot work with any type of liquid elixir. All I know is, I’d better go have another coffee, because I have some writing to do.

Haunting TV Reads PANDORA

If you checked out all the participating blogs for Coffin Hop this past Halloween, you may have stumbled upon the art blog Horror Made or its partner YouTube channel, Haunting TV. Both are run by the brilliant and talented Jeanette Andriulli, who drew, as part of her monster series, the Pumpkinhead that I won for Coffin Hop:

PumpkinheadNow the multi-talented Jeanette has chosen to spotlight PANDORA in the book excerpt series of Haunting TV, “The Spider’s Nest.” In the following video, you’ll find a chilling dramatic reading of one of my favorite scenes from the novel complete with stunning original artwork. Click, like, share… and enjoy!

Happy Halloween!

As we celebrate this, our favorite and most haunting day of the year, let’s also give some applause to this year’s Halloween Mad Libs contest winner, who will receive this lovely prize package:

Coffin Hop Prize 2014And the winner is…


Congratulations, Mary! It was a close run, but the voters loved your Mad Libs story. And a special thank-you to everyone who entered the contest and voted for their  favorite response. You all came up with some entertaining little stories that I hope you enjoyed creating and reading.

And thanks, once again, for making this year’s Coffin Hop another kickass Halloween extravaganza! Don’t forget to make your final hop around the blogs to see if you won anyone’s giveaways and to wish all of your favorite Coffin Hoppers a very HAPPY HALLOWEEN!


Pumpkin Roundup

Tomorrow is Halloween! Whatever you do to celebrate, I’m guess it involves at least 2 things: carving a pumpkin and Coffin Hopping! There’s still time to enter some of these great bloggers’ contests, so get hopping and go win yourself some free stuff.

As for my contest, don’t forget to VOTE VOTE VOTE by midnight tonight for your favorite Halloween Mad Libs! It is voting season, after all, so go exercise your civic right to choose. Pick your favorite story; for those who entered, tell your friends and family to get over there and vote! Winner will be announced tomorrow.

And now, time for this year’s Jack-o-Lantern!

???????????????????????????????Here’s a lovely display of my skull pumpkin, more skulls and pumpkins, and some decorative corn.

???????????????????????????????But it looked much better lit up with a candle.

IMG_0720…and this was my pumpkin yesterday. Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well.

???????????????????????????????As a bonus, I give you… the Talking Heads! Well, just a couple of talking heads, actually, from the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride.

???????????????????????????????Happy Halloween Eve!

All In the Suit That You Wear

The following story is a prequel to last year’s Halloween short, “The Hollow Sleep.” While you don’t need to read the first one to understand this, you may enjoy the connections.

All artwork courtesy of Bev Parypinski.


© Joanna Parypinski

Adlai jpg

Bryan swept bits of dead leaves tracked into the funeral home on the soles of black shoes.

He discreetly swept these into a dustpan and tapped the debris into the garbage. As soon as the viewing in room 3 was over, he could clean up in there, then call it a day. He hadn’t eaten lunch, and his gray uniform sagged around him.

He would have eaten, but he’d spent his lunch break asking again when Mr. and Mrs. Peterson were going to give him that raise. They smiled—the sad, sympathetic smile ubiquitous to funeral directors—and said if he would only hold on a little longer, they were sure business would pick up in the new year, now that it was likely Dixon Funeral Services would close. They ushered him out the door, thanking him profusely.

It wasn’t the first time they’d asked him to hold out at minimum wage. But it was getting cold now, and his trailer wasn’t too good at keeping heat. He wanted to buy a space heater as the chill of late October fell, but those were expensive.

He kept sweeping in the corner, though there was nothing left to sweep. Those few people had been in room 3 for a while. Not very many of them. The dead man must not have been well-liked.

Hoping to speed things along, Bryan slipped into the viewing room and stood near the back, toying with his ring of keys and sweeping dust along the hardwood floor. Three people stood around the open casket. They looked unhappy, but not in the way people normally did when grieving. One woman, frowning, pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Bryan was going to tell her that there was no smoking in here, but instead he kept quiet.

At last the handful of people left, muttering to each other in muted angry tones. They hadn’t left anything of a mess behind, like some folks did, so Bryan put down his broom. He glanced left and right before heading toward the casket, curious to see who was in there.

They’d chosen the simplest wooden casket on offer, with a white velvet interior. The man within was old, with ghostly liver-spotted skin and thin wisps of gray hair. He leaned in closer, curious about the man, about his unhappy turnout, and saw he was wearing an old gray suit—


He whirled around, heart leaping into his throat. It was Mr. Peterson, leaning casually in the doorway.

“The last of them just left. We’ll be heading out now. Be a help and close up that casket when you’re finished cleaning. We’re burying it first thing tomorrow—no ceremony, I guess. Thanks, Bryan.” He turned back down the hall. “Don’t forget to lock up when you’re done!”

Bryan listened to the patter of Mr. and Mrs. Peterson’s shoes down the hall and out the front door.

He turned back to the man in the casket and noticed, again, the suit.

It had an older style, like something you might find at a vintage clothing store, and it was dark gray. The weave was thick and coarse—wool. Tweed, maybe. Bryan didn’t know much about suits. He’d never owned one. Most of his clothes were ripped jeans and sweat-stained t-shirts, plus this janitor’s uniform he wore to work. He never liked to go anywhere around town. He was always worried the women would sneer at him, at his clothes.

There was something about the suit he liked, though. It was old but dignified. Might do a good job keeping its wearer warm in these chilly dying months of the year.

What did that corpse need to keep warm for, anyway?

Bryan looked around. He was the only one left in the building. The Petersons had turned off some of the lights, and he stood in semi-darkness.

He hadn’t stolen anything since he was a kid, when he used to pilfer packs of gum and bottles of soda pop from the convenience store.

It was awkward, trying to pull the corpse’s arms out of the sleeves, but he managed. Getting the pants off was easier once he opened the rest of the casket lid all the way. When he was done, the old man lay in his underwear and undershirt, his hairy bare legs looking thin and sad.

Bryan folded the suit and closed up the casket.

Janitor jpg* * *

It was full dark when he got home. The stars were bright and the crescent moon was grinning. He’d passed increasingly decrepit houses as he’d made his way to his end of town. Some sported colored lights and jack-o-lanterns.

He had no decorations for his trailer. When he got inside, he popped open a beer and unfolded the stolen suit on his couch. He ran his hands over it. The seams were fraying slightly, but it held together well. His fingers kept roving, and he found a name etched onto the inside of the collar—Adlai.

Bryan was pretty sure the dead man’s name had not been Adlai. Maybe it wasn’t the man’s suit. Thinking this, he stood in front of the mirror and pulled it on.

The material was thick and warm, but he felt cold. This wasn’t right. He’d never stolen from a dead body before. Bryan respected the dead. But, now that he had it on him, he realized how well the suit fit, as if it had been tailored for him. For the first time, he looked smart. Snappy.

He grinned into the mirror.

A movie called Beetlejuice had come out earlier that year. He’d liked it a lot.

He held up his hands, imagining the gray suit separating into black and white stripes, and said, “It’s showtime!”

* * *

He spent the rest of the evening watching television in his new suit. It smelled a little of mothballs, as if it had been closed up in someone’s attic for a while, and he tried not to think about how a dead man had worn it only hours ago. Strangely, the longer he sat there and the more beer he drank, the colder he became. The damn trailer must have some kind of insulation problem, and even this thick suit couldn’t help.

Occasionally, he found himself zoning out. He would blink at the TV and realize he’d simply been sitting there, staring and blank, for the past thirty minutes.

He fell asleep on the couch, still wearing the suit.

When he woke, it was the middle of the night. He stood up, turned off the TV. Went in front of the mirror. He stared at his reflection, and for a moment, he did not recognize himself. The man he saw was pale with dark circles under his eyes. He opened his mouth, without even intending to, and croaked out—

“I will not be forgotten.”

Blinking, wondering why he had said that, Bryan shrugged out of the jacket and draped it over the couch. He pulled off the pants and staggered off to bed, feeling feverish and ill.

* * *

The next morning they buried the man whose name was not Adlai.

Bryan helped move the casket, his heart pounding, thinking they would open it at some point—but of course they didn’t. No one wanted to see the dead man. His casket was lowered into the earth under an overcast sky, and no one knew what Bryan had taken.

His mind drifted as he worked.

He thought he might wear it to visit his father. He hadn’t been to see the man in years. Had been too afraid, really, but now he wanted to go. To show off his new suit. To show him that he wasn’t like his father, that he was better than his father.

The gravediggers sweated even in the cool air. Autumnal colors littered the cemetery from overhanging trees, red and orange leaves falling faster than the groundskeeper could remove them. They landed over graves and around headstones, onto the mound of dirt displaced by this newly dug grave for the man who wasn’t Adlai.

When he walked home that day, jingling his ring of keys in an imitation of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme (the original, not the third sequel that was in theaters right now), a boy rode past him on his bike, wearing a clown mask. As he passed, he called over his shoulder, “Nice janitor costume!”

Bryan stopped.

That’s right. This was just a costume. He wasn’t really a 28-year-old janitor paid minimum wage at a funeral home and living by himself in a trailer. His real clothing was at home. His real clothing was a nicely-tailored tweed suit, vintage, like a professor might wear. And his name wasn’t really Bryan.

A little blonde girl, maybe four or five, chased after the boy on the bike, shouting, “Clayton! Wait up for me! Hey!” She wore cat ears on a headband and had whiskers drawn onto her face in marker. She tripped on the unevenly-laid sidewalk, skinning her knees. To her credit, she didn’t cry.

Bryan took her little arm and pulled her to her feet. “You better catch up to your brother,” he said.

She looked up at him and seemed to see something in his face she didn’t like. Slipping her arm out of his grasp, she stumbled back, still staring at him, then turned and took off again down the sidewalk.

“You’re welcome,” he muttered, continuing toward home.

When he got there, he took off his uniform and put on the suit. It fit so well, even better than his worn-in jeans that he’d had for years. It fit him like his own skin.

Over the next few days, he formed a habit where he put on the suit as soon as he got home from work. Sometimes he didn’t even turn on the TV but simply sat there, still, silent, and staring. He usually wore it straight through the night, dozing, until he inevitably woke up on the couch, disoriented and feverish. Sometimes he had nightmares. In them, the suit got up and walked around the cemetery, empty and headless, passing dead trees and stopping beside the grave of the old man whose name was not Adlai. He always woke from these dreams in a cold sweat, his skin itching as though the fibers in the wool were fusing to his skin. That’s when he would take it off and go to bed, but he could still sense where he’d left it, sitting, watching, waiting to be filled.

* * *

Saturday arrived, and he decided he couldn’t just sit around at home wearing a suit of this caliber. It was time to pay his father a visit.

He caught a bus uptown, along a winding road that cut through a forest of shedding trees, then changed to another bus that took him well outside the town’s limits, into the countryside, past apple orchards smelling of cider and pumpkin farms with fields of orange gourds.

It was over an hour and a half before he arrived at the prison.

Gated in by chain-link fences, the plain cement-hued building looked ominous and out of place against the peaceful country backdrop. He entered the visitors’ area and gave them his father’s name.

They sat him at a table in a room where prisoners sat talking to civilians. Bryan waited. He thought he would be nervous, but the suit instilled a calm confidence in him that made him sit completely still until his father was guided to his table, wearing an orange jumpsuit.

He looked old and haggard, black scruff growing on his chin, his black hair turning gray. His cheeks were sunken, but his eyes still had their same mean glint.

“Well, look what the fucking cat dragged in,” he said, his voice a low smoker’s growl. “Thought you forgot about me. Why’d you finally decide to come pay your old man a visit?”

Bryan stared at him and realized he had no idea what to say. As a child, he’d usually remained quiet and docile while his father wailed on him. Now, some of that old fear crept up, but it was tempered by the chill seeping into his heart, by some osmosis through his skin, from the wool.

“Ain’t you gonna say something, you little shit?”

Bryan glanced down at himself, then slowly looked up at his father. “How do you like my new suit?”

“It’s a fucking suit. Looks like an outdated piece of shit. Where’d you find that thing, in a dumpster?”

Something was filling him from the inside, like a black smoke suffusing his organs. There were two of him now: Bryan, who wore his janitor uniform, and the other one who wore the suit. He stared at his father, and for the first time, the old man averted his eyes, looking uneasy.

“You should respect me,” said Bryan.

His father leaned back, frowning. The mean glint was gone from his eyes. “What…?”

The prison seemed to darken. All Bryan felt was a cold rage, an emotion he’d never felt before. It was as though the feeling belonged to someone else, and he was just borrowing it.

He stood up and slammed his fist into his father’s face.

The old man toppled over, and Bryan came around the table, grabbed him by the collar, and hit him again. Blood spurted up from the man’s nose, streaked down over his broken lips and teeth.

Guards descended on them, pulling Bryan off of his father and out of the visiting room. He turned his head as he was led away to watch the bloodied prisoner pulled up by two guards and hauled off, his knees dragging on the floor. The look he gave Bryan just before he vanished around a corner was not a look he’d ever seen on his father’s face before, and it gave him great satisfaction.

The old man had looked afraid.

Bryan was deposited unceremoniously outside of the prison and told not to return. The next bus wouldn’t be coming by for a while, so he straightened his suit and started to walk.

It was a long trek to the next bus stop. Over an hour. He walked calmly, though, and after a short while he noticed the bloodstains speckling the suit. His father’s blood. The fabric absorbed it well, and it darkened until it was almost unnoticeable, as though it were part of the wool.

Rather than worrying that his new garment was ruined, Bryan was pleased, because the Other was pleased.

* * *

On Sunday, he put his janitor uniform into a trash can outside his trailer, poured in a little whiskey, and set it aflame. He watched the golden embers race across the cheap material, burning black holes in it. The jumpsuit curled in on itself, smoldering away until it was unrecognizable.

On Monday, he wore the suit to work.

The adjacent cemetery was quiet, but today was the day before Halloween. Mischief Night, the kids called it. He knew that later, after they closed down and darkness swallowed the sun, costumed teenagers would hop the fence and roam the grounds, throwing toilet paper and daring each other to wander alone among the graves.

For now, though, it was quiet. The air was that rare mix of cool and warm that only happened on sunny October days. He felt it, distantly, beyond the numbing effect of the tweed suit.

When he entered the building, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson called him into their office. They sat at their joint desk, wearing fine black attire, and smiled identical sad, sympathetic funeral director smiles.

“What happened to your uniform, Bryan?” asked Mr. Peterson.

He straightened the jacket, feeling the etched name burning into the back of his neck. “Don’t you like my new suit?”

“It’s… it’s very nice,” said Mrs. Peterson. “But… it isn’t really something that a janitor should wear to work, you understand?”

He stared at the two of them behind their polished mahogany desk. He was again divided. There was him—timid, pushover Bryan—and there was the dark presence of the Other.

“We can get you a new uniform,” said Mr. Peterson, smiling. “A nicer one. We can even have your name sewn onto it. How would you like that?”

He didn’t move. “I like this one.”

“If this is about the raise—”


He flattened the key ring in his palm, carefully sliding a key between each knuckle so that they jutted out from his curled fist like talons.

“It’s about the suit.”

Before either of the Petersons could speak, he lunged forward and threw a right hook into Mr. Peterson’s neck. The keys protruding between his fingers pierced the skin. Mr. Peterson fell to the floor and cried out, blood soaking his collar. He grabbed Mrs. Peterson by her long hair and yanked her out of her seat.

He brought his foot down on Mr. Peterson’s face, and the man fell still. Mrs. Peterson, screaming, kicked out her feet as she was dragged backwards by the hair, one of her high-heeled shoes sliding off. He dragged her out of the office, to the back stairwell, which led down to a dim basement room. She sobbed and pleaded, but he ignored her.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked, trying to pull free. “Please, Bryan. Don’t do this!”

That made him pause. That name. He turned to look at her.

“I’m not Bryan.”

Mrs. Peterson’s puffy red face transformed from desperate to confused. “Then who are you?”

Bryan was there, but he was only an idle viewer. Attending the funeral, observing the others, but not participating. The Other was in charge now, and it was the Other who responded in a low, creaking voice entirely unlike Bryan’s.

“My name is Adlai.”

He grabbed a bottle of embalming fluid and a syringe.

She screamed again and continued screaming even as he injected it into her, again and again. He quieted her by stuffing a mop head into her mouth. Holding it there, suffocating her, he injected more embalming fluid until her eyes rolled back, she convulsed, and her tissue turned necrotic around the injection sites.

He brought the dead Mrs. Peterson and the unconscious Mr. Peterson to the display room—an arduous task—and picked out a casket for each of them. He laid them inside, smoothing Mrs. Peterson’s hair against the lush velvet, before closing and locking the lids.

There were several newly-dug graves in the cemetery, prepped for some recently-deceased folks who would soon inhabit their chosen plots. He had no trouble pulling back the tarps covering them. What he did have trouble with, however, was lowering the caskets into the graves by himself. Still, he got the job done, and he covered them with a layer of dirt to hide them, then pulled the tarps back over.

He left work early.

When he got home, he took off the suit.

Bryan started to shake. He paced left and right, then went to the bathroom to throw up. Crusted flakes of Mr. Peterson’s blood clung to his knuckles. With trembling hands, he folded the suit, but he kept seeing Mrs. Peterson’s hair tangled in his fingers.

The Other told him to put the suit back on. He would feel better.

Instead, mind swimming and stomach churning, he went to Goodwill and handed them the suit. They asked if it was a donation. He said yes, take it. Take it.

He bought a rope at the hardware store.

He stopped at the library and looked up how to tie a noose.

When he got home, he sat in his trailer, wrapping the rope around and around his hands, staring into the blank television screen and intermittently crying out or laughing. He sat like that for a while and realized that he was like his father. He was just like his father.

He sat like that through nightfall, afraid to fall asleep in case the suit returned in his dreams, hollow and hungry for flesh. He sat like that throughout the following day, until trick-or-treaters knocked on his door and saw him and ran away screaming. And he would sit like that until someone found him, staring and starving and babbling about a haunted suit, and called the authorities, and locked him up where he belonged.

Vote for Your Favorite Halloween Mad Libs

Thanks to everyone who participated in this year’s Halloween Mad Libs! I got a ton of great responses. Now it’s time to unveil how your words fit into my story. Read the entries and pick your favorite; then vote below! Voting ends at 11:59 PM PST, October 30th. The winner will be announced on Halloween and will receive the prize, including a signed copy of PANDORA, Pumpkin Spice Coffee, and more!

And now, without further ado…



By Karen Soutar

Once upon a cushion, Halloween was in the air: leaves BAITED, children trick-or-treated, and ORANGES glared out from every darkened window. MARK was filled with FURY, for he had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked NOISILY like fearsome BOWLS. A CHEERFUL mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like GRINNING ROSES. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a VAMPIRE lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The SHY moonlight revealed a picture of a HAND on the headstone. Just as MARK was beginning to lose his nerve, a CUP erupted from the grave and shouted, “I’LL EXPLAIN LATER.”


By Paul Stansfield

Once upon a NOUN, Halloween was in the air: leaves SCREAMED, children trick-or-treated, and JACKALOPES glared out from every darkened window. ENGLEBERT HUMPERDINKT was filled with HATRED, for he had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked OILY like fearsome CEMETERIES. A BLOODY mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like RUNNING RUBBER CHICKENS. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a FRAN DRESCHER lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The WHIMSICAL moonlight revealed a picture of a GIRAFFE on the headstone. Just as ENGLEBERT was beginning to lose his nerve, a LOBOTOMY erupted from the grave and shouted, “YOU WANT AN OMELET, YOU HAVE TO BREAK SOME EGGS.”


By Mary Rajotte

Once upon an UNDERTAKER, Halloween was in the air: leaves JOSTLED, children trick-or-treated, and CREATURES glared out from every darkened window. JOANNA was filled with WEEPING, for she had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked EXTREMELY like fearsome DEAD. A RUSTY mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like STABBING GRAVES. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a SPECTER lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The GHASTLY moonlight revealed a picture of a CRYPT on the headstone. Just as JOANNA was beginning to lose her nerve, a SHOVEL erupted from the grave and shouted, “CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT.”


By Kevin James

Once upon a LOBSTER, Halloween was in the air: leaves TANGOED, children trick-or-treated, and DINGHIES glared out from every darkened window. KELLY was filled with AMBIVALENCE, for she had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked MERRILY like fearsome EUROPEAN NATION STATES. A SWAMP-LIKE mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like SURFING OSTRICHES. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a BASILISK lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The FLAMBOYANT moonlight revealed a picture of a RAINCOAT on the headstone. Just as KELLY was beginning to lose her nerve, a QUICHE erupted from the grave and shouted, “2 OUT OF 3 AIN’T BAD.”


By Julianne Snow

Once upon a CHICKEN, Halloween was in the air: leaves BUZZED, children trick-or-treated, and KILLER BUTTERFLIES glared out from every darkened window. SIOBHAN was filled with NAUSEA, for she had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked AWKWARDLY like fearsome NUNS. A BALEFUL mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like RUNING PLATES. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a GODZILLA lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The DEFAMATORY moonlight revealed a picture of a DISEASE on the headstone. Just as SIOBHAN was beginning to lose her nerve, an INFORMATION erupted from the grave and shouted, “GET AWAY FROM HER, YOU BITCH!”


By A.F. Stewart

Once upon a WIFE, Halloween was in the air: leaves ATE, children trick-or-treated, and ORANGES glared out from every darkened window. HARRISON was filled with SHAME, for he had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked ELEGANTLY like fearsome CHICKENS. An ADORABLE mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like WALKING CABINETS. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a MEDUSA lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The UGLIEST moonlight revealed a picture of an EDITOR on the headstone. Just as HARRISON was beginning to lose his nerve, a REFRIGERATOR erupted from the grave and shouted, “HELP, I’M MELTING.”


By Jayne

Once upon a SKELETON, Halloween was in the air: leaves SHATTERED, children trick-or-treated, and POODLES glared out from every darkened window. CARLO was filled with JOY, for he had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked DARKLY like fearsome YOYOS. An ELEGANT mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like FLEETING PARASOLS. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a TROLL lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The BLEAK moonlight revealed a picture of a LAKE on the headstone. Just as CARLO was beginning to lose his nerve, a CASTLE erupted from the grave and shouted, “SHALL WE DANCE?”


By Bev

Once upon a BROOM, Halloween was in the air: leaves RAN, children trick-or-treated, and BONES glared out from every darkened window. EDGAR ALLAN POE was filled with SADNESS, for he had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked SLOWLY like fearsome TOMBSTONES. A SLIMY mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like WALKING BALLOONS. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a WEREWOLF lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The COLOFRUL moonlight revealed a picture of a TEQUILA on the headstone. Just as EDGAR ALLAN POE was beginning to lose his nerve, a BOOT erupted from the grave and shouted, “GOOD TIMES NEVER SEEMED SO GOOD.”


By bn100

Once upon a CAROUSEL, Halloween was in the air: leaves CARVED, children trick-or-treated, and PLANES glared out from every darkened window. BOB BARKER was filled with JEALOUSY, for he had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked UNSIGHTLY like fearsome MUFFIN TOPS. An OLD-FASHIONED mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like PACKING PAILS. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a SHREK lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The DUSTY moonlight revealed a picture of an OATMEAL on the headstone. Just as BOB BARKER was beginning to lose his nerve, a BASKET erupted from the grave and shouted, “COME ON DOWN.”


By Matt Cowan

Once upon a PUPPET, Halloween was in the air: leaves SKITTERED, children trick-or-treated, and SPIDER EGGS glared out from every darkened window. REGINALD was filled with SOMBERNESS, for he had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked WICKEDLY like fearsome KNIVES. A BLEEDING mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like VOMITING BOOKS. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a SCREAMING SKULL lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The CURSING moonlight revealed a picture of a CANDELABRA on the headstone. Just as REGINALD was beginning to lose his nerve, a PUMPKIN erupted from the grave and shouted, “I THINK I JUST POOPED MYSELF.”


By Mallory

Once upon a CAULDRON, Halloween was in the air: leaves HOWLED, children trick-or-treated, and GRAVESTONES glared out from every darkened window. PAUL TERGEIST was filled with ANXIETY, for he had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked DANGEROUSLY like fearsome PUMPKINS. An EERIE mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like CREEPING GHOSTS. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a FRANKENSTEIN lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The DUSTY moonlight revealed a picture of a GHOUL on the headstone. Just as PAUL TERGEIST was beginning to lose his nerve, a BROOM erupted from the grave and shouted, “I WANT TO SUCK YOUR BLOOD.”


By Georgina Morales

Once upon a TOUPEE, Halloween was in the air: leaves DRAGGED, children trick-or-treated, and BANANAS glared out from every darkened window. VINNY, THE BLOODY SCARECROW was filled with LONELINESS, for he had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked BEGRUDGINGLY like fearsome PUZZLES. A PATHETIC mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like CRUISING TRUCKS. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a WENDIGO lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The SCRAWNY moonlight revealed a picture of an INSIDE on the headstone. Just as VINNY, THE BLOODY SCARECROW was beginning to lose his nerve, a MOONLIGHT erupted from the grave and shouted, “SHAKE YOUR BOOTY!”


By Mary Beth

Once upon a DEATH, Halloween was in the air: leaves FROLICKED, children trick-or-treated, and ALIENS glared out from every darkened window. EDGAR was filled with INDIGNATION, for he had been dared to spend the night alone in the local cemetery. The gravestones hulked CRYPTICALLY like fearsome TREES. A PECKISH mist crept over the graves, and from one emanated a distant sound like LINGERING BATTERIES. Our intrepid hero crept up to the grave, imagining a HARPY lying beneath the soil in uneasy rest. The TELEKINETIC moonlight revealed a picture of a VIBRATOR on the headstone. Just as EDGAR was beginning to lose his nerve, a PIMP erupted from the grave and shouted, “THERE’S A TIME AND A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING, AND IT’S CALLED COLLEGE.”

So, which Mad Libs story was your favorite?

Don’t forget to vote by midnight on October 30th!


An Interview with Horror Author Scott Kenemore

The Grand HotelFor today’s Coffin Hopping, I’ve got a special treat for you! Bestselling author of Zombie, Ohio; Zombie, Illinois; Zombie, Indiana; and The Zen of Zombie, Scott Kenemore, is here to talk about Halloween, zombies, and his latest book, The Grand Hotel, which is available now! Run, don’t zombie-walk, to grab yourself a copy (Trust me: I read it, and it’s amazing).

And now, the interview…

Joanna Parypinski: Hi, Scott. ‘Tis the season for horror (and Coffin Hopping!). With that in mind, what’s your favorite thing about Halloween?

Scott Kenemore: I just like the way Halloween makes me feel. October is a great time of year. I think starting school in the fall trains us to feel like that season is always “the beginning of things” for the rest of our lives, even if we’re no longer students (or teachers). And who doesn’t like hay rides, haunted houses, and ghost story telling?

JP: Agreed. Let’s talk zombies! Zombies have become extremely popular in contemporary media. What is it about them that you find most scary or compelling?

SK: I like how zombies occupy a strange spot in our brains so that they feel “friendly” and “unfriendly” at the same time. When your sister comes back as a member of the walking dead, she’s somehow your sister and not-your-sister at the same time. Zombies can be very human and relatable, but concurrently repulsive and exotic and “other.” It’s an odd and unique effect. Sigmund Freud has a great essay called “The Uncanny” about this sensation.

JP: Your Zombie series involves invasions in various Midwestern states (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana). What about these settings appeals to you? How important is setting in your writing?

SK: I like setting my zombie outbreaks in the locations where I’ve lived because I’m curious about how these places would handle the “stress test” that zombies create. Zombie, Illinois was set in many of the places on the south side of Chicago where I used to work in community development. The character of Leo Mack is based on a number of pastors I knew who managed large- to medium-sized congregations in high crime, low income neighborhoods. It was interesting for me to think about how the south side community would do in a zombie outbreak, especially compared to more affluent Chicago neighborhoods where people might be depending on security systems and police presences that wouldn’t be there anymore. A lot of films and books have already told the story of “zombies in the suburbs.” I wanted to cover some new ground.

With Zombie, Indiana, I was interested in examining the impact of zombies at the governmental level. In lots of zombie fictions, characters briefly interact with “headquarters”—or whatever remains of the government—but we never get more than a small taste of what it’s like for the people who are trying to keep order and run things. In Zombie, Indiana, I wanted to look at what it would be like for a high-level administrator when the zombies rose up. Accordingly, one of the main characters is the Governor of Indiana, and over a third of the book takes place in-and-around his “war room” at the state capitol.

With Zombie, Ohio, I was also interested in a new perspective—that of the zombie itself. In many mythologies, zombies are a virus. When I was formulating how this book was going to work, I was thinking about those real-life cases of people who contract a virus but never get ill, or don’t get ill to the same extent that others do. For example, I think it’s something like 1 in every 100,000 people who get HIV never get sick. They have HIV. They can give it to other people. But it never makes them unwell. I was interested in translating that to a zombie virus. What if there’s a guy who dies and is reanimated by the zombie virus, but unlike most zombies maintains almost all of his wits? What if he’s lost most of his memory, but wants to figure out who he was and why he died? What if he learns he was murdered, and decides to solve the mystery of who killed him and why?

JP: I think my favorite book of yours might actually be your latest non-zombie tale, The Grand Hotel, about a desk clerk who leads a group of visitors on a creepy tour of a mysterious, mouldering hotel. What was your inspiration behind this book? How did you come up with the idea?

SK: I’ve always liked collections of interconnected short stories… especially when the stories are interconnected without first seeming to be. I think the all-time best example of this is probably a novel called Betrayals by the British author Charles Palliser.

But the biggest inspiration definitely came in the form of The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie, which I read in early 2012. It’s a story cycle arising out of the oral traditions of ancient India, and tells the tale of a king who has to solve riddles contained in 25 different tales in order to reach his goal. It was first put into Sanskrit by an author named Sivadasa around the year 1100, but its oral composition probably dates concurrent to the writing of Beowulf. Yet I feel like the stories in The Tales are written with a worldliness that makes them feel like they’re from the nineteenth century, not the ninth. The narrative voice is so charming and clever, and everything is done with a wink. It’s just lovely.

I think—as with most ancient texts—The Tales is, however, hampered by the fact that it was written for an audience with a very different set of narrative expectations. I suspect if contemporary readers were given The Tales with no historical reference, there’d be a lot of “Wait…why are you telling me this again?” and “So…what does this detail have to do with the main story?”

I have probably never been as creatively galvanized by a creative work as I was by The Tales. I don’t know if The Grand Hotel is a “retelling” or “reimagining” exactly —only a couple of stories in my book are adapted directly from it—but it is, at the very least, a powerful homage.

JP: The Grand Hotel has a unique structure. When you were writing it, did it feel like writing a novel or like writing a short story collection?

SK: I think it felt more like writing a novel because each short story was something that the characters in my frame-story were listening to, thinking about, and—in some cases—searching for clues in. In this way, I felt like that same group of frame-story characters was always present, always with me.

JP: Which of the stories in The Grand Hotel is your favorite? Why?

SK: Ha! Good question.

I think editing a collection of stories is like mixing an album. (I am also a drummer.) After a while, you’ve been over the stories/songs so many times that they all start to blur together in your head. You become unable to say which one you like the most, or which one feels the most interesting.

With an album, when outsiders listen to it, they can usually tell you right away which song should be the single. I had a similar experience with the early readers for The Grand Hotel. Most of them said their favorite was a story about strange happenings aboard a space shuttle mission. It’s actually a reworking of a very old, traditional American ghost story. I just updated it, and tried to add a couple of surprising twists. But there you go. I’m glad people feel I adapted it effectively.

JP: Anything else in the works—another installment in the Zombie series, or something new?

SK: I am working on a few different things, but mostly allowing myself to take it easy for the rest of 2014. I had two books come out this year. That was a lot of work!

JP: Thanks so much for doing this interview! I hope everyone gets a copy of The Grand Hotel for an excellent Halloween read.

Thanks for joining Scott and me in today’s Coffin Hopping! Don’t forget to enter my Halloween Mad Libs Contest. Voting for the best response starts on the 28th.

Happy Coffin Hopping!