A horror short story
The short story that inspired the novel THE PUMPKIN MAN was originally written to be read at library and other public reading venues for Halloween. It was first printed in Doorways Magazine in 2008 and is due to be reprinted in the Wicker Park Press anthology ALL AMERICAN HORROR: THE BEST OF THE FIRST DECADE OF THE 21ST CENTURY, edited by Mort Castle, in 2012. For a limited time, we present it here for your Halloween entertainment! You can also hear John read the prologue via YouTube by clicking on the graphic below.
When the lively summer breeze turns deathly chill and the lush emerald leaves of August crumble with autumn age, the Pumpkin Man comes to town. It happens every year. One day, the gravel lot on the corner of 5th and Maple is bare, littered only with broken glass and tufts of dandelions and thistle. The next, and the lot is full, covered in gourds of all shapes and sizes. Piles of warty yellow squash tumble next to row after row of well-creased pumpkins, most of them fiery orange, but some still betraying the green veins of a fruit that had been picked just before prime.
When word filtered through the school that the Pumpkin Man had arrived, we got on our bikes and rode straight from school to see. We went there every day for a month, until one day, right after Halloween, we’d turn our bikes around that corner and find the lot was vacant again, littered only with the husks and leavings of gourds gone by.
The year I turned 13, we had been anticipating his return for weeks when it finally happened. On the very first day of school, Steve Traskle had said, “the Pumpkin Man will be here soon.”
One day, early in October, the day finally came.
The word whispered its way across the school like fire in a field of browning wheat. I heard it first from Dave in English class, and then from Belle in History. By lunch I’d heard it a dozen times: “He’s here. The Pumpkin Man is back!”
The school day took a month to pass. I watched the minute hand on the homeroom clock move from notch to notch, each minute taking an hour to tick by. When the 3 o’clock bell rang to announce the day’s dismissal, I was already half out of my seat, anticipating its clamor. Billy and Carl were right behind me, and the three of us pushed our way down the crowded hall and out to the bike rack in record time.
“Goin’ to Maple?” Steve asked, racing up behind our little gang.
“Yeah,” I said, not looking up from the combination of my bike lock.
“Can I go with you guys?”
“If you can keep up,” Carl said. He yanked his ten-speed around and stomped the pedal as if he were jumpstarting the engine on a motorcycle.
“Let’s go, girls!”
We were off.
The thing about the Pumpkin Man wasn’t that he appeared and disappeared each year with equal mystery and stealth. Nor was it that he brought a thousand globes of orange and yellow for us to take home and carve. You could get a pumpkin at the Save-All if you just wanted something to draw a face on.
“Oh man,” Billy whispered, as we skidded our back tires around as one, and stopped to stare, a gang of four, at this year’s display.
The thing about the Pumpkin Man wasn’t the pumpkins he brought to town, but the faces he carved on his pumpkins. In the midst of the sea of fire-bright globes that covered the white gravel of the lot at 5th and Maple was a long wooden stand. It stood as tall as a man, and as long as a house. And lining the half dozen shelves within its overhang were special pumpkins.
Pumpkins with the most evil grins and scowls you’ve ever seen scored into a gourd. At night, he put candles in all of them, and the darkness at the edge of our little town was broken with a hoard of devilish teeth and slanted, glimmering eyes. It was as if the very door to hell had been opened, and the armies of Lucifer were poised to feast upon our innocent souls.
“Damn,” Carl said as we stared at the offering for this year. Even in the daylight, the jagged orange-rind teeth gave me a shiver. Somewhere, someone was whistling a strangely discordant tune.
“Twisted as hell,” Steve agreed.
We stashed our bikes on the side of the lot and stalked forward, eager to get closer to the frightful carvings that seemed to have blown in overnight with the brittle oak leaves. If the days of a stifling sun and cool blue pools were past, than this was a fine substitute, we thought.
I moved past a row of grinning, leering faces, stopping finally at a particularly evil-looking gourd. Its eyes were almond-shaped; narrow but long, and its teeth leered like daggers waiting to strike. It was a pumpkin with the soul of a rabid rat.
“Help you boys?”
Steve pulled his fingers back from touching one of the scowling gourds as if he’d been bit.
“Just looking,” Carl said, answering for all of us. His voice shook a little, and I could understand why. The Pumpkin Man’s creations weren’t the only creepy thing in this newly filled lot. The Pumpkin Man himself was a frightening sight to behold. Wisps of ice-white hair curled out from his ears like mist, and his eyes, piercing blue, looked too tight together, as if someone had rolled two blue marbles as close as they could. His lips were pale and long, and his neck was thin as a turkey’s. But it was his hands that made you look twice. The Pumpkin Man strode slowly between us and the pumpkins, and as he did, he trailed one long finger across the green stubs at the top of each gourd. That finger seemed white as a bone, its nail dark as snails.
“See something you like? Ten dollars for any of my babies.”
He grinned at us then, showing teeth brown as candied molasses.
I shook my head and moved away from the display. In years past, I’d never come face to face with the Pumpkin Man when I’d perused his lot, and now, I found, he gave me the creeps more than his carvings.
Steve, Carl and Billy caught up with me a few minutes later, as I wandered around a four-foot pyramid of orange globes.
“’s matter man?” Carl asked. “We were talking to the Pumpkin Man back there after you split. He told us some cool shit. Like how he models his carvings on animal teeth, and people too. Why’d you leave?”
“Just felt like it,” I dodged, and soon we were talking again about how cool the carvings were, and about which of the hundreds of pumpkins we’d get our moms to come buy in the next week. Carl had already picked out one on the edge of the lot, based on its “totally cool warts.” The thing was basically flat on one side, and half yellow, but it didn’t have a smooth patch of skin on it anywhere. “It’s a mutant,” he boasted.
Behind us, the Pumpkin Man stood, arms folded across his chest, smiling.
A mutant, I thought.
I didn’t go back to the no-longer-vacant lot at 5th and Maple for a few days after that. I’m not sure why; everyone at school was a-buzz with the cool faces the Pumpkin Man had brought for us to see this year. And there were always new ones. Each day, he chose a gourd to create another feral face to replace whatever pumpkins had been purchased from his display. And each new fearsome face was different, unique. He didn’t carve from a mold, that was for sure. His imagination was apparently full of haunting, harrowing teeth and eyes.
It was probably the second week in October; the nights had come early, full of thick grey clouds, and the trees already seemed skeletal, their leaves fled with fright at the onset of an early winter. I was bicycling home from Carl’s after dinner. It was only 7 o’clock or so, but the sky was already devil blue, and I pulled my jacket close as I pedaled around the bend at 4th and Maple. Ahead, I could see the glow of candles, and the leer of a hundred hungry faces.
The twisted patch of the Pumpkin Man was waiting.
I pedaled faster, past houses wreathed in corn stalks and fake spiderwebs, windows aglow in orange lights.
As I reached the lot, I slowed. The row upon row of glowing, fiery gourds lit the darkening fall of night, but did so in stillness. There were no shoppers perusing the Pumpkin Man’s lot, nor a Pumpkin Man to be seen.
I’m not sure what possessed me, but I braked my bike and laid it quietly on the rocks at the front of the lot. Then I walked in between the rows of uncarved, unborn pumpkin faces until I stood again at display of carved pumpkins, staring at the gourd I’d honed in on the week before. The rat-faced pumpkin. Its teeth still made my skin crawl as I stared into its flickering eyes.
Something about it drew me, and despite the goosebumps on my skin, I stood there, alone in the dark, and returned its hellfire gaze. That’s when it happened.
I jumped five feet in the air. The screech had come from just behind the pumpkin trailer, and it raised every hair on my head. It sounded like something had died.
In front of me, a hundred flickering faces leered. But they stared quietly, unmoving. I looked behind and to the side, and saw only the shadows of pumpkin piles. A haze of cloud slid past the moon and even the shadows grew darker.
My heart pounded so loud I thought the neighbors must surely hear me from down the street, but I forced myself to creep down the aisle of candle grins to the edge of the makeshift shed. There was a dim light coming from behind the display stand, and I quickly saw why.
The Pumpkin Man was carving.
On a makeshift table, his hands moved from side to side. A flash of silver cut the air and then the sound came again.
The pumpkin was screaming!
His blade cut the skin and with deft motions he carved a sliver from the gourd, tossing it to the ground.
Again and again he plunged the blade into the pumpkin and each time I heard the noise, though the cries grew weaker. I was rooted to the ground, watching him from behind, his shoulders pumping and swiveling, his body alive with the fury of his work. He dug a long thin furrow in his creation’s mouth, and gave a soft cry himself when the knife caught.
“Rrreeeaaahhh” cried the pumpkin as he brought the knife out, and flicked another shard of shiny pulp over his shoulder. A piece bounced across the gravel near my feet. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t resist; I bent to pick it up.
The Pumpkin Man whistled something then, some off-key tune, as I turned the slick skin of the filleted gourd between my fingers. It was gross, sticky, and I dropped it back to the ground and carefully retraced my steps around the corner of the pumpkin display stand. In the light of the flickering, evil pumpkin faces I held up my sticky fingers and gasped.
They were coated in red.
I turned and ran as hard as I could from the place. I didn’t even stop for my bike.
Nobody could understand why I wouldn’t go on the daily forays to the Pumpkin Man’s displays. The next day, I stopped by the lot just fast enough to retrieve my abandoned bike, and then went out with Steve to look for Rusty, his German Shepherd. The dog had gotten out the day before, and while that wasn’t unusual, this time it hadn’t come back. Steve tried not to show it, but he was near tears. We combed the woods on the west side of our subdivision for hours, going up one dirt trail and coming down the next, yelling “Rusty? Here boy!”
Looking for the dog kept my mind off the pumpkin display, but only for awhile. The talk of the Pumpkin Man was ever-present at school.
“He’s got a real cool one today,” Carl told me just a couple days after I’d heard the pumpkin cry. “It’s creepy – like a werewolf or something. It really looks like it has a snout full of nasty teeth.”
“Try sticking your hand in ‘em,” I suggested, brushing past.
“I’m serious, man. You should see this one…it’s one of his best.”
A week passed, and the October rains hit hard. The trees lost their leaves all at once, and the ground was a mess of brown, soggy piles. Nobody visited the Pumpkin Man for a couple days as the rains kept us dodging from car to school and back again. When it all passed, and the days grew dry, the winds picked up and the days grew ever darker. Winter was just around the corner, and we pulled out our heaviest, ugliest coats to hide from the chill. My bike hadn’t been out of the garage in almost two weeks.
“Let’s go see what the Pumpkin Man’s been up to,” Billy said one day after class. It was just before Halloween, and everyone eagerly assented. Except for Steve, and me. Steve’s dog had never turned up, and he hadn’t talked much once it became clear that Rusty wasn’t coming back. And I hadn’t been to the corner of 5th and Maple since the day after I’d held the shard of a bleeding pumpkin in my hand.
But it was a rare sunny day, and Billy and Carl and Dan were almost running for the bike rack. Steve and I followed, but didn’t say much.
We pedaled past the towering piles of soggy leaves, and the wind shifted, blowing a crisp reminder of early winter across our necks. I shivered and pumped my feet harder to keep up.
“Good to see you boys,” the Pumpkin Man said in a voice sharp as cat claws as we walked up to the display of carved gourds. “Which of my little beauties would you like to take home today?”
Despite the light of the waning afternoon sun, I thought the pumpkins seemed unusually grim. There was a darkness behind all of those razor-shorn eyes, and a hunger in their ragged, sharp-edged teeth. Their hollowness called out to be filled. Called out for blood. A chill shivered my spine at the thought.
“Got any vampire pumpkins?” Carl said, and the man laughed.
“Can’t say that I’ve killed me any of those.”
“Have you ever tried to carve a Freddy Krueger pumpkin?” Billy ventured.
The Pumpkin Man shook his head, and clouds of wispy hair flickered at his temples.
“I only carve from real life,” he said. “See this one?” He pointed at a rat-faced pumpkin much like the one I’d noticed almost three weeks before. This one was a recent creation, but still aging fast. Its teeth curved inward, and a faint scum of mold covered the dark spots on the surface of its skin. Soon it would cave in on itself in decay.
“I used a squirrel for this one,” he said. “Note the teeth.”
We nodded at his ingenuity, and stepped away. Maybe we all felt a little creeped out by a man who dedicated his life to carving pumpkins. And then Steve stopped at one of the newer creations. The one that, despite its round, veined surface, seemed to have long canine teeth, and a snout.
“It’s just like Rusty,” he breathed. I saw the wetness in his gaze, and punched him in the shoulder.
“It’s a pumpkin.”
“I used a dog for that one,” the Pumpkin Man called.
Steve choked and balled his fists. “C’mon,” I said, and pushed him to leave. The others followed. Behind us, I heard the Pumpkin Man start to whistle.
“I don’t know what he does,” I told Steve later, as we sat by the tree in his front yard. My butt was cold and damp from the leaves, but we didn’t retreat to the warmth of his house. We had secrets to share.
“I was there looking at the pumpkins,” I said. “It was the day Rusty disappeared. I heard a screech, like something was dying. When I went to look, I saw him carving a pumpkin, and when I picked up what he threw away from it, my hand was covered in blood. Something’s not right about the Pumpkin Man.”
“Let’s check it out,” Steve said.
“What do you mean?”
“Tonight. Let’s see how he does it.” His eyes glimmered with unshed tears and he turned away. I knew he was thinking about Rusty. All I could think about was the spine-curling scream of a mutilated pumpkin.
We left our bikes at the Thompson’s, two houses away from the vacant lot which was now filled with pumpkins. It was dark, after 8 p.m., and the moon was nowhere to be found. I shivered beneath the heavy down of my olive green coat. I’m not even sure if it was because of the cold.
We threaded our way between the piles of warted squash and miniature gourds and beachball-sized carving pumpkins. We stepped carefully, not wanting the crunch of gravel to give us away. In moments, we were face to face with the blazing wall of flaming, smoking faces.
The rat-faced pumpkin seemed even more shriveled than this afternoon, the curl of its teeth leaving it look gummy, geriatric. The snarling dog-faced gourd caught Steve’s eye again, and I had to pull him away.
“C’mon,” I said. “He’ll be back here.”
We stepped around the back of the pumpkin shed the same way I had two weeks before, but this time, the Pumpkin Man was nowhere to be seen. The carving table was there, unused in the midst of the empty clearing.
“Maybe he’s back here,” Steve whispered, pointing to a small pickup truck trailer. You couldn’t see the pickup from the street with all the pumpkins and the display shed, but now it was obvious how the Pumpkin Man got around. He could pack everything into the truck and then sleep in it as well.
Steve stole around the side of the truck and disappeared into the shadows. I waited for him to round the other side of the rusting hulk of a vehicle, but he didn’t reappear. The night only grew more still. Then something snapped. I froze.
From nearby, I heard a now-familiar whistle. This time I recognized the tune. It was “Nowhere Man” by The Beatles. I retreated from the pickup until the rear wall of the display stand was at my back.
That’s when I saw him. The Pumpkin Man sauntered around the side of the truck where I had been expecting to see Steve. Something was clutched in his arms. It was covered in a brown blanket or tarp. He kept whistling, seemingly calm, but whatever he had trapped was wrestling and kicking like hell.
He dragged the covered form over to the table, sat down, and with one hand scooped up a pumpkin and set it on the table. With the other, he forced the form in the blanket down on the table next to the gourd.
I’m not clear exactly what happened then. It was dark, and the Pumpkin Man’s back was to me. And I was scared. But I know this. From the depths of the night I heard Steve cry my name. And then, the Pumpkin Man’s arm raised up high in the air. When it came down, a flash of silver against the sky, I heard the most piercing scream I’ve ever heard in my life, before or since.
The blanket thrashed and kicked against the Pumpkin Man’s body as he wedged it tight to the pumpkin on the table, and dug his blade into the gourd again, and again. Dark shapes flew in the air as he gouged chunks from the pumpkin and tossed them aside. On the table, a new face took shape, and I struggled to keep my teeth from chattering, as I watched him draw eyes and a smile that were hauntingly familiar. The light was poor, and the Pumpkin Man’s back hid his work, for the most part, from my spying eyes.
But when the screaming faded to gasps, and the Pumpkin Man dropped his now-still blanket of inspiration, I saw a shrieking face more horrible than any of the laughing, scowling faces on the stand directly behind me.
On this pumpkin, captured in abject terror, the Pumpkin Man had carved Steve’s crying face.
I never saw Steve again. The kids at school talked the next day about the amazing new pumpkin that the Pumpkin Man had on display, but I didn’t go see. I already knew what it would look like.
The police came to our house on Halloween night, and asked if we had any knowledge of Steve’s disappearance. They asked when I’d last seen him, and wrote carefully in their notebooks when I told them that we’d been at the Pumpkin Man’s just two nights before, and that the Pumpkin Man had carved Steve’s face into one of his creations. Had carved Steve.
They didn’t believe me. I knew that they wouldn’t. Even my parents shook their heads. That’s why I didn’t even bother to go to my dresser, where the shriveling shard of a pumpkin triangle rested, hidden away in my top drawer. I had picked it up from the ground, the night the Pumpkin Man carved Steve into a pumpkin.
I think he knew I was there that night. At one point, he looked over his shoulder, and smiled a horrible toothy grin in my direction. He started whistling again then, as if he knew I could never do anything to stop him.
And he was right. Who would believe a kid that says a pumpkin carver was killing stray dogs and children to make his grotesque creations all the more real?
But I still have the last piece of Steve they’ll never find. Shriveled like leather in my drawer.
Its sunset skin is still faintly smeared by a dull, violent red.
~ THE END ~