THE SMASHED MAN OF DREAD END by J.W. Ocker — 🎃

the smashed man of dread end by j.w. ocker

Somewhere far beyond the galaxies you know, there is a crack in the wall of reality. Within, far past the realms of time and space, Things lie in wait. They have been waiting for a long time. 

The crack is expanding. It is not yet large enough for the Things to pass through, but, by focusing their will, they are still able to send through some small portion of their power. A force sent to aid those who would pave the way for their release.

It is happening already. Something like a dark sludge begins to ooze slowly out of the crack. Once out, it will make its way towards our world, where it will finally take shape. The advance guard from the Void.

The Things in the Dark Beyond wait, patiently. They have been waiting for a long time. Somewhere deep inside, they begin to feel a terrible hope.

Calcifer is awoken from his slumber by a tapping noise. From his vantage point high up on top of the bookcases, he notes that he is alone in the study, and wonders vaguely where Osseous could be. He looks around, trying to find the source of the sound. The crow looks towards the window on the far right side of the room, expecting to see a branch from one of the neighboring trees scratching at the glass. Instead, Calcifer sees a face. It is split in a ghastly grin, full of sharp, pointed teeth. Its eyes are huge and set far apart, glowing crimson in the darkness. Around its mouth and eyes are red markings, haphazardly drawn, looking all the world like a macabre impression of a clown.

“Uh,” the crow says.

Tap tap tap.

It taps against the glass with elongated fingers that end in sharp, cracked fingernails. The figure is so large that it has to bend itself to look through the window. It waves at Calcifer when it realizes it’s finally been noticed. Its appalling grin grows wider.

“Y’all,” the crow croaks. “Oz! Guy!” He recalls Osseous’ affirmation of there being some sort of protection around the house, but still — the crow flaps his wings and readies to take flight.

The figure at the window stops waving at him and starts pointing with eagerness. It gestures at some point beyond the opened sliding doors of the study. Towards the stairs, Calcifer guesses. An assumption soon confirmed when the man suddenly comes flying down them.

The man crashes into the bookcases in the study, books cascading from the shelves, falling on top of him and scattering to the floor. Calcifer flies quickly down to his side. The man is bruised, but breathing.

“You’re okay!” the crow says. “What’s happened‽” Looking up, he notices that the figure is no longer at the window.

The man sits up, holding his sides. “They got in,” he says, through groans. “They got in through gaps in the windows.”

Before Calcifer can ask for elaboration, something comes down the stairs. At first, he can’t understand what he sees: a tall, gaunt figure, looking very much like the one outside the window, but this one’s eyes blaze violet. It is also, the crow observes with added confusion, entirely flattened. It makes its way down the stairs in an undulating gait that would be funny if it wasn’t such a surreal sight. It is being followed by two other such creatures.

“They changed shapes to get in,” the man says, chuckling. “Clever little demon things.”

Calcifer turns towards the man, whose eyes look blurry and unfocused. “Okay, so it’s time to get up,” he says. “Time to fight? I dunno.”

The man flashes him a weary smile. “That’s not my persuasion, little bird. I’m no Fighter. I’m a Reader.”

“Okay,” says the crow. “Okay, but unless you mean to throw some books at them, I don’t think reading them a story is the answer.” The figures were walking slowly, as if they were still getting used to their new, awkward forms. Their perpetual grins, however, made them seem like they knew they had all the time in the world. 

“Salwaystheanswer,” the man says.

“What?” 

“Reading at them. It’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s my role. My function.” The man gets up, still looking very much dazed. “Wheresmbook?”

What?

“I had a book. With me. I was Reading. Must have dropped it when I was dropped. Help me find it.”

The man gets up and, preposterously, begins to look around the mess of fallen books around him, as if otherworldly beings weren’t making their way towards them at the moment.

Fine,” Calcifer says, exasperated, and begins to help the ridiculous man, who probably has a concussion and is going to die, look for his book.

Things happen quickly. 

Calcifer spots the man’s book with little difficulty. He has no time to wonder how he knew which one it was, despite having never seen it at all. He flies over, pointing it out for the man. 

At the same time, the flat, stumbling creatures get a sudden burst of energy. They fly down the stairs, flattened limbs flapping wildly, and lurch into the study. 

The man picks up the book just as a ragged hand reaches over to him. A hand which Calcifer begins to tear into with his talons. 

Another hand smacks the crow away, sending him crashing into a bookcase in an explosion of feathers and dust.

Calcifer falls to the ground. As his vision begins to blur, he barely sees Osseous as they come into the room, skeletal limbs raised. As the crumbled bookcases right themselves and rush towards the creatures. As the fallen books fly up into the air, forming a wall that starts to push back. As the man kneels beside the librarian, opens his books, and begins to read. As the flat creatures — the man’s book has the word “smashed” in the title, and Calcifer, light-headed, thinks it perfectly describes these weird things — burst through the wall of books and shelves. 

As amber beams pour out of Osseous’s orbits. As Keeper, limbs raised, rises up into the air, their terrible blazing light shining directly on the invaders, causing them to cower and convulse before finally crumbling into clouds of cinder and ash. 

Calcifer witnesses all of this happen in a bewildered haze, and then he blacks out.

Later, when Calcifer wakes up, he finds the man sitting beside him, looking, annoyingly, none worse for wear.

“Hello, little bird,” he says. 

“You know, I don’t like that nickname, either. Think it’s condescending.” 

The man shrugs.

“What happened?” asks the crow, wincing. One of his wings is bent slightly — not broken, miraculously, but tender. “Are those things gone?” 

“They’ve gone,” replies Osseous. They walk into the study carrying a tray with a bowl of soup, which they put in front of Calcifer. The crow is resting on the librarian’s armchair, against a cushion. He dives into the bowl.

“How, though?” the crow asks between mouthfuls. “What was it that you did?”

“I kept them away,” they say, simply. “It’s part of my duties as Keeper.”

“And I read to them a bit,” the man says with a mischievous grin. “It’s part of my duties as—”

“Shut up,” says the crow, grimacing. He feels the mother of all headaches coming on. “You two are just full of surprises, huh?”

“You’re one to talk,” the man says. “The way you helped save my hide back there. Finding the book that quickly. Keeping them busy by having them smack you instead of me.”

“Oh yes, my absolute damn pleasure,” Calcifer says, not even trying to hide the sarcasm.

“No, really,” says the man. “That was good. You did good. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” says the crow, meaning it. He wants to do nothing but sleep away his aches and pains.

“You were right, though,” the man says, addressing Osseous. “He has the true makings of a Seeker.” The librarian nods at this.

Calcifer feels another set of questions coming on, but he stamps them back down, opting for sleep instead. “So I guess we should get some rest before the next batch of things comes by to visit or whatever,” he says.

“Oh, no, I believe stronger safeguards are in order,” says Osseous. “And, perhaps, some lighter reading fare?” This last directed at the man.

The man shrugs again. “Gotta fight fire with fire, Oz.”

“I’ll get to work,” Osseous says. They pick up the now empty bowl. “You rest, friend Calcifer. Seek out pleasant dreams to replace this brief nightmare.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Calcifer says, already drifting off. The crow’s head swims with questions and doubts and recollections, but he doesn’t dream at all.

The Smashed Man of Dread End by J.W. Ocker may be middle grade horror fiction, but it is, without a doubt, the most unsettling book I’ve read so far this Hallowe’en season. Brimming with chilling, frightful imagery, this novel is decidedly not afraid to go dark. And with it, Ocker joins the ranks of personal favorite authors like Katherine Arden and Neil Gaiman as an excellent purveyor of children’s horror.

The smashed star of the show itself will go down as one of the creepiest monsters I’ve ever come across, in terms of presence and demeanor. Many of the scenes involving the Smashed Man were simply full of dread and suspense — the tension so palpable you could almost cut it with a knife. One of Ocker’s intentions was to create a monster who would, in his own words, “be welcomed at Bobby Pickett’s ‘Monster Mash.’” I think he succeeded. All the great monsters come with their own set of rules, after all. What they can and cannot do. The Smashed Man is no different, and many of the story’s most interesting sequences had to do with the characters trying to find out what those rules were. 

The characters were notably strong here, too. They felt more real and less stylized than the standard fare in a lot of children’s horror. Presumably because Ocker based the main siblings on two of his own daughters. Protagonist Noe in particular was smart and clever without ever veering into precocious, nettlesome territory. Len acted exactly like a toddler, with all the delight and frustration that entails. But I was even more impressed with the rest of the Dread Enders — Crystal, Radiah, and Ruthy — who were portrayed, not as capricious side-characters, always ready with a quip and a wry remark, but as thoroughly terrified, traumatized children. Which is, of course, exactly what they were. Drollery is often so much easier and safer to write than depth, so I appreciate the restraint Ocker showed with the depiction of these characters.

An excellent story for the spooky season.

A SEASON WITH THE WITCH by J.W. Ocker — 🎃

blog - a season with the witch by j.w. ockerI started J.W. Ocker’s A Season with the Witch late in September, wanting to get into the spirit of the season a little earlier this year. I finished it on a gray, gusty evening a couple of days into October, and honestly I couldn’t have asked for a better atmosphere (marred slightly by the fact that I was getting over a cold). It really is the perfect read to set the stage for Hallowe’en — Ocker’s enthusiasm for the holiday is infectious, and you can’t help but be swept up by the magical pandemonium he chronicles in this spookiest of travelogues. 

This is a book about Salem, naturally. About the charm and chaos and contradictions that constitute the Witch City. To write it, Ocker and his family spent an entire October experiencing the haunted holiday along with Salem and its other guests. It’s an excellent, enviable premise, and Ocker makes the most of it, venturing out into the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets of downtown Salem during the days before retreating back to a rented house or, more often than not, a themed restaurant or bar (wherein he would imbibe colorfully-named concoctions like “Candy Corntini” and “Satan’s Cider”) in the evenings to collect and record his thoughts. The result is a loving nocturne to both a city and the holiday that, for better or for worse, it has come to embody.

The book is as much a history primer as it is a travel guide, with the first handful of chapters dedicated to Salem in the Puritan era — particularly focusing, of course, on the infamous Witch Trials. Specifically Ocker tries to figure out just why an event that was, in comparison to other similar inquisitions of the time, relatively inconsequential, and that most of which didn’t even happen in Salem proper but rather in the surrounding vicinities, came to shape the identity and soul of a single place so thoroughly — not to mention latch itself so fervently to our collective unconscious that the mere appearance of the word “witch” makes one think of Salem. It’s as close to a central theme as this book has, and Ocker tries to offer up different conclusions by interviewing, through the lens of this thesis, several individuals with varying ties to the city. We never really get a definitive answer, though, but the point is that maybe there isn’t one. Cities are made of inconsistencies and complexities as much as they are made of brick and mortar.

It’s a duality and discrepancy those who hold up Salem as a haven for Hallowe’en have to contend with, and which constitutes one of my favorite aspects of the book. A real tragedy happened there, minor or not, and viewpoints differ as to whether adding a weighty layer of morbid celebration counts as disgrace, or if it’s yet another example of human resilience against adversity. Of people, as Stephen King once wrote, dancing in defiance of the dark. Ocker favors the latter:

Everything in the entire world is founded on tragedy. Our country, every country. There’s not a society on the planet that doesn’t have ancient tragedies clawing at its back. The past is a giant corpse. But life isn’t a perpetual state of regret and mourning over those tragedies, it’s taking those tragedies, giving them their due in proportion, learning from them (or not), working to prevent them from happening again (or not), and then we all party because we only have so many holidays in our lives.

A bit irreverent, to be sure, but I stand with Ocker (and King) on this one.

In truth, history is what makes up the bulk of Season, and if there’s one gripe with the book is that at times it seems like too much History and not enough Hallowe’en. Which is funny, because we do actually get quite a bit Hallowe’en. Ocker guides us through the myriad of eerie events, creepy celebrations, and dreadful destinations Salem offers not only during the month of October, but often year-round as well. Everything seems joyous and hokey in equal measure, and it is written in such a fond, earnest manner that it led to the Witch City becoming a personal de rigueur destination. There’s a hell of a lot of Hallowe’en in here. But you still end up expecting more, especially based on the promise of the cover. It’s just as well, though. Hallowe’en always feels like too much and also somehow never enough. It’s part of the ephemeral nature of the holiday.

“You can’t fit a city into a book,” Ocker writes in the epilogue. Which is true: cities are unwieldy by nature, and too full of people (beautiful, frustrating, obfuscating people) to be entirely understood. But you can capture a certain feeling, a certain sense of a season. Ocker let us know back in the introduction: Salem is weird. Salem is absurd. Salem is magic. If the intention was to show us just how weird and absurd and magical the Witch City could get, then A Season with the Witch most definitely met its goal.