Scary Halloween Tree Nicholas Conley

The Value of a Spooky October

We’re now knee deep into the spookiest time of the year, which is to say October — a month that is, from start to finish, dominated by Halloween. Throughout the month of October, you’ll see jack o’lanterns on porches, scarecrows on downtown street corners, horror movies in the cinema, and ghosts hanging from street lamps. Then at the end of the month, kids fill the sidewalks in all kinds of creepy costumes.

However, outside of pure entertainment—and putting all the consumerism aside—I think there’s a real psychological value to Halloween.

See, as we all know, the human psyche is always yearning for catharsis. That’s why in regular life, avoidance of a problem just makes a problem worse: you have to face your fears, not run away from them. It’s also why we do crazy things like skydiving. We crave resolution. We thrive on the thrill of facing our fears.

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Halloween, as it is today, is basically the one time a year where our entire culture faces our fears at the same time. We like scary things. By dressing up as ghosts, ghouls, and monsters, decorating our houses with skeletons, and watching the newest scary films, we’re taking on our fears, instead of running away from them. It’s like the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster, but on a wider level. Halloween is more than just a fun way to spend the month: it’s a necessary cultural catharsis, particularly in scary times like the present day, where every morning’s news headlines are so anxiety-inducing.

Facing our fears, turning them into a source of entertainment rather than terror, is a vacation that everyone needs once in a while. So Happy Halloween, everyone, and enjoy the scares!

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KIN, by Kealan Patrick Burke: The Story After the Story

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With some degree of variation, almost every slasher movie ends with the same scene.  It’s a scene that we’re all too familiar with.  A climactic moment that has been permanently etched upon our collective subconscious.  It’s a a common trope, a sequence that has become so familiar that even those who’ve never watched a horror movie know this scene by heart:

Once the carnage is done and all of her friends have been killed, the lone survivor – always a girl, usually a virgin, usually covered in blood and either sobbing or desensitized – stumbles away from the defeated killers, and she finally escapes from the horrific place she’s been trapped in.

That’s how all slasher stories end. It’s how they always end.  The basic formula has varied little since Tobe Hooper’s classic ending to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and one of the more recent movies in that franchise – the 2006 prequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning – pulled out a surprise ending by deliberately subverting the audience’s familiarity with this famous sequence.  Still, for the most part, slasher movies tend to follow a pretty steady formula.  Sure, sequels happen, but these sequels will usually repeat the same formula with little connection to the prior entry, and usually with a brand new cast of teenagers for the killer/s to slaughter.  Lather with blood, rinse, repeat.

There’s a lot to recommend about Kealan Patrick Burke’s excellent 2012 novel, Kin.  It’s terrifying, moving and uniquely put together, with masterfully-worded prose and a storyline that absorbs the reader’s full attention like a sponge.  But the immediate thing that sets Kin apart, from the very beginning of its opening paragraph, is its take on the famous bloody girl running away sequence.

Unlike most slasher films, which end on this sequence, Kin makes the intriguing choice of setting that sequence at the very beginning. 

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Burke’s novel opens up with Claire Lambert, the only survivor of her friends, who after being tortured by the Merrills – a psychopath family with cannibalistic tendencies, ala Texas Chainsaw‘s Sawyers – escapes from their clutches half-dead, naked and bloody. She stumbles into the road, where she is picked up by a boy and his father – a father all too aware of the potentially dangerous consequences of his actions, but unable not to help. Now, tensions are ramped up. The Merrills know they have to get out of town fast, but first they have to quickly kill anyone who could testify against them.

As all of this goes on, Kin also introduces two parallel storylines that eventually tie into the main narrative. In one, a waitress with a dark past is brought back to her old life by an unexpected visitor. At the same time, a soldier—fresh out of Iraq and plagued by PTSD—finds out this brother was one of the victims of the massacre that Claire escaped from, and he readies himself to engage in a vengeful war against the Merrill family.

Kealan Patrick Burke, author of Kin.

Kealan Patrick Burke, author of Kin.

Kin begins where other stories end—after the slaughter, after the war, after the pain has already been inflicted—and it tackles the questions that any such violent incident would undoubtedly raise.

Seriously, what happens after the girl gets away from the psychopaths? What happens to the homicidal, cannibalistic family that accidentally let her escape, now that she’s surely going to tell the cops? What happens to the girl, who would have to be pretty damn traumatized by this point? What happens to her family, who now has to take care of her? And what happens to the innocent people who picked her up and saved her? If the family wants to get rid of all the evidence, are the father and son also at risk?

By asking these questions and placing this post-slasher scenario inside what is essentially a Southern Gothic novel, Kin brings new depth to a tired genre. It shakes up the format, explores characters that could’ve been stereotypes, and brings a full scope of emotions to the proceedings; yes, this novel is scary and yes, it’s violent, but it’s also a novel that isn’t afraid to create characters that the reader deeply cares about. It’s a book that can both grab your heartstrings and then rip them out in the next moment.

At its core, Burke’s Kin is a novel about the pain, stress, anxiety and devastating grief that follows a traumatic event. It shows what happens after the scars are inflicted, and how the pain of trauma has a residual effect that trickles down through one’s life and impacts one’s loved ones. Every violent action has consequences, and Kin pulls back the curtain on the aftermath.

The Cage Legacy at Books & Boos – August 24th!

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Okay guys, here’s the deal: On Saturday, August 24th, I’ll be doing a book reading and signing of The Cage Legacy over at Books & Boos, a unique little shop that’s located in the wild jungles of Colchester, Connecticut.

Books & Boos, which is run by Jason and Stacey Harris, carries over 4000 used and new books by a variety of New England authors, as well as featuring a collection of novelty horror items.   More information on Books & Boos can be found here, on their official website.

My reading will run from 5pm through 7pm.  So, for all of you Connecticut locals?  Swing on by!

-Nicholas Conley