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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jack-o'-Lanterns from Beyond: Beware the Pumpkin Man

As summer eases into fall, we’re treated to a fabulous array of seasonal delights... brisk days warmed primarily by the sight of sun-dappled, multi-colored leaves, making their last (and grandest) hurrah; the smell of woodsmoke permeating the air by night, as fireplaces and wood stoves are brought out of semi-retirement; farmer’s markets piled high with enticements ranging from bags of shiny apples, mounds of gourds, and jugs of sweet cider, to paper cones filled with still-warm, freshly-roasted nuts; and a general desire for coziness, such as can be found in cuddly sweaters and mugs of hot cocoa.
Amusements are likewise in abundance when autumn rolls around. Homecoming festivals, arts and crafts shows, beer-and-sausage-themed “Oktoberfests”, and, of course, everything that Halloween brings--from the costumed day/night itself, to the various haunted houses, hayrides, and quirky regional offerings (corn maze, anyone?), that take place in the weeks prior.
Something a bit darker and more sinister returns with a vengeance this time of year, as well--a yearning for the chills and goosebumps brought on by the scariest of ghost stories... and the bloodthirstier, the better. Enter John Everson’s The Pumpkin Man.
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Jennica Murphy has definitely had better weeks. Still reeling from her father’s gruesome murder only months earlier, the young schoolteacher receives--in the space of just a few days’ time--the additional blows of being “let go” from her teaching position and the news that her apartment building will be going condo... both, effective immediately
Fortunately, her best friend and roommate (and equally-fired teacher from the same school), Kirstin Rizzo, has a plan: with nothing tying them to Chicago, they should make use of Jenn’s recent inheritance--a house off the coast of California, which belonged to her father’s also-recently-deceased sister, Meredith Perenais--in order to regroup. What better place to take stock of one’s life than on the beach, with scores of hunky guys around, Kirstin argues (blithely ignoring Jenn’s insistence that her aunt’s house isn’t likely to be on that sort of beach).
Jenn, sad to say, is right, as they discover after arriving in San Francisco and making the three-hour drive north to remote River’s End; the old house sits alone on a rocky outcropping near the ocean, set apart from the rest of the tiny town (which itself boasts little more in the way of “excitement” than a general store and a small dive bar). Still, the accommodations are free, and the girls agree there’s much to be said for a change of scenery.
The house is hardly what they expected, either. A quick tour leaves them in no doubt that Aunt Meredith was not only a witch (something that Jenn had grown up knowing in only a vague sort of way), but that she was a very ardent practitioner of witchcraft, instead of just a dabbler... and that her specialty was in the darkest of dark arts.
The townspeople, naturally, have long been well-acquainted with the unusual proclivities and habits of the entire Perenais clan (of which Meredith was the last surviving member), and they greet Jenn and Kirstin with rather less than open arms (if the repeated messages of “Leave here now,” are anything to go by). 
The reason for their hostility is simple. One of the Perenaises--Meredith’s husband George, actually--was the infamous Pumpkin Man, a sort of urban legend-turned-horrible-reality who terrorized tiny River’s End for several years, stealing a child away each October... even as he innocently sat carving his beautiful pumpkins by day down at the pumpkin lot. But, when the townsfolk finally got their proof--the (headless) body of one of the missing kids turning up, with bloody shards of pumpkin nearby--it was all over for the Pumpkin Man. An angry mob lynched him, thus putting an end to all the terror... or so they thought.
Now, after more than twenty years, the Pumpkin Man has apparently returned from the dead. This time, though, his targets aren’t children, but rather the parents of those children killed so long ago. He’s leaving the bodies of his victims--their heads replaced with intricately-carved pumpkin likenesses--right out in the open. The townsfolk are convinced that Meredith is responsible for his bloody return... and Jenn and Kirstin have just landed in the middle of this dreadful mess.
To get away from it all for a bit, the girls head down the coast, where they soon hook up with a couple of guys. Suddenly, things are looking up again, and the foursome make plans for the following weekend. 
Unfortunately, that’s when everything goes really wrong. A little fun with Meredith’s old witchboard spooks everyone. Grisly discoveries in the basement sicken them. And then, someone--one of them--dies, another victim of the Pumpkin Man. 
As the last person still alive with any Perenais blood running through her veins, Jenn knows that somehow it’s up to her to figure out which of the black spells from Meredith’s vast library might undo the unspeakable evil which is her aunt's legacy. Otherwise, every single person in town--Jenn included--will soon wind up with very dead, with a pumpkin head of her or his own. 
~ ☠ ~ ☠ ~ ☠ ~ ☠ ~ 
First off, let me say that--much like with horror movies--I have rather different expectations when it comes to horror stories than with other genres. I still look for the writing to be good and the plot entertaining, of course, but with the emphasis placed on the scare-your-pants-off scenes instead of on depictions of personal growth, meaningful conversations, or the like. In that regard, The Pumpkin Man delivers, for author Everson crafts plenty of ghoulish, spine-tingling scenes full of shocking and vivid imagery. The level of suspense is high throughout, too, never making anything (or anyone) too obvious.
My one (big) problem concerns the “love connections”, because it is the arena of romantic relationships wherein Everson's weakness lies. (And no, I’m not talking sex scenes or feelings, here.) The rapidity with which the couples supposedly form their bonds (which are only a part, yet an integral part, of the story)--combined with Jenn's junior-high-schoolish thoughts and the (by turns) stilted/cheesy dialogue between the lovers--make for some groaningly-bad scenes, unfortunately.
Still, it is that time of year, when the days grow shorter, the nights grow longer... and curling up under a cozy quilt in the wee hours--when there’s not a sound in the house (save, perhaps, for the eerie scratching of an occasional branch against the window)--is the only thing you want to do. The Pumpkin Man should do nicely for that. You'll certainly never again look at a pumpkin pie in quite the same way.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3 out of 5 Mousies

[Note: The Pumpkin Man will be released 10/15/2011.]

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