Author: Norman Partridge
Genre: Horror, Speculative Fiction
Publisher: Cemetery Dance Publications (original) / Tor (reprint)
Publication Date: October 2006 (original) / September 2010 (reprint)
Paperback: 208 pages
Halloween, 1963. They call him the October Boy, or Ol’ Hacksaw Face, or Sawtooth Jack. Whatever the name, everybody in this small Midwestern town knows who he is. How he rises from the cornfields every Halloween, a butcher knife in his hand, and makes his way toward town, where gangs of teenage boys eagerly await their chance to confront the legendary nightmare. Both the hunter and the hunted, the October Boy is the prize in an annual rite of life and death.
Pete McCormick knows that killing the October Boy is his one chance to escape a dead-end future in this one-horse town. He’s willing to risk everything, including his life, to be a winner for once. But before the night is over, Pete will look into the saw-toothed face of horror–and discover the terrifying true secret of the October Boy . . .
Winner of the Stoker Award and named one of the 100 Best Novels of 2006 by Publishers Weekly, Dark Harvest is a powerhouse thrill-ride with all the resonance of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: Winner of the Stoker Award. Blurbed by the likes of Peter Straub and Stephen King. Celebrated as one of the best new voices in contemporary American horror. Why the hell WOULDN’T I read this book!?
All Hallows Eve, Anytown USA. Every year, the small, corn-farming midwestern town performs a ritual of violence and death. The October Boy rises from the dead and shucked cornfields, butcher knife in hand, and runs through the streets to the church at the center of town, where every teen male awaits with the same goal: to kill the October Boy, and win a way out of the town’s endless cycle of fear and desperation.
The Halloween of 1963 begins the same pattern – the boys take to the streets with weapons, and the October Boy rises from the fields. This year, Pete McCormick is determined to “jump the line” and bust out of the dead-end town, breaking free from his drunk, deadbeat dad. And Pete has a plan.
But the night holds many secrets and surprises – and Pete finally discovers the truth of the October Boy and what it means to be a part of his quiet little town.
Winner of the Stoker Award in 2006, Dark Harvest is either brilliant or contrived, depending on the reader’s perspective and preference. Undoubtedly, Norman Partridge has talent and the skill to incite emotions, good or bad, in readers. For the most part, the divide comes because of Partridge’s style in telling Dark Harvest. Related in the third person by an unseen narrator that frequently “breaks the fourth wall” – that is, directly addresses and assumes familiarity with the reader – Dark Harvest can be seen as unique and immersive or frustratingly affected (again, depends on a reader’s tastes and perspective). Perhaps the best way to illustrate Mr. Partridge’s narrative technique is to use an example:
A Midwestern town. You know its name. You were born there.
It’s Halloween, 1963 . . . and getting on towards dark.
In most places, those stalks would have been plowed under long ago. That’s not the way it works around here. You remember. Corn’s harvested by hand in these parts.
This particularly literary technique, at least in my opinion, gives Dark Harvest a unique flavor – and combined with the powerful imagery, imaginative “twist” to the story, this makes Dark Harvest a keeper. True, the characters aren’t particularly developed and the entire story takes place over the course of a few hours of a single evening, but at just over 200 pages, Dark Harvest is the poster child for quality over quantity. I could truly feel Pete’s desperation to leave and the claustrophobic insanity of this small midwestern town. And I’ve always been a fan of the evil deeds propagating further evil sort of theme in my horror – something Dark Harvest accomplishes with aplomb.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot points for fear of spoilers, but the gradual realization of what exactly the October Boy is and how this small town operates is a growing, beautifully executed dread. Although the characters could have used a little more fleshing out, motivations explored a bit beyond the superficial, and despite the fact that the “breaking the fourth wall” narrative began to get tedious in the later chapters, I still found myself fully engrossed in this dark tale. A perfect Halloween read, in my humble opinion.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From chapter 1:
A Midwestern town. You know its name. You were born there.
It’s Halloween, 1963… and getting on towards dark. Things are the same as they’ve always been. There’s the main street, the old brick church in the town square, the movie theater—this year with a Vincent Price double-bill. And past all that is the road that leads out of town. It’s black as a licorice whip under an October sky, black as the night that’s coming and the long winter nights that will follow, black as the little town it leaves behind.
The road grows narrow as it hits the outskirts. It does not meander. Like a planned path of escape, it cleaves a sea of quarter-sections planted thick with summer corn.
But it’s not summer anymore. Like I said, it’s Halloween.
All that corn has been picked, shucked, eaten.
All those stalks are dead, withered, dried.
In most places, those stalks would have been plowed under long ago. That’s not the way it works around here. You remember. Corn’s harvested by hand in these parts. Boys who live in this town spend their summers doing the job under a blazing sun that barely bothers to go down. And once those boys are tanned straight through and that crop’s picked, those cornstalks die rooted in the ground. They’re not plowed under until the first day of November. Until then the silent rows are home to things that don’t mind living among the dead. Rats, snakes, frogs… creatures that will take flight before the first light of the coming morning or die beneath a circular blade that scores both earth and flesh without discrimination.
Yeah. That’s the way it works around here. There are things living in these fields tonight that will, by rights, be dead by tomorrow morning. One of them hangs on a splintery pole, its roots burrowing deep in rich black soil. Green vines climb through tattered clothes nailed to the pole and its crosspiece. They twist through the legs of worn jeans like tendons, twine like a cripple’s spine through a tattered denim jacket. Rounded leaves take succor from those vines like organs fed by blood vessels, and from the hearts of those leaves green tendrils sprout, and the leaves and the vines and the tendrils fill up that coat and the arms that come with it.
A thicker vine creeps through the neck of that jacket, following the last few inches of splintery pole like a backbone, widening into a rough stem that roots in the thing balanced on the pole’s flat crown.
That thing is heavy, and orange, and ripe.
That thing is a pumpkin.
The afternoon sun lingers on the pumpkin’s face, and then the afternoon sun is gone. Quiet hangs in the cornfield. No breeze rustles the dead stalks; no wind rustles the tattered clothes of the thing hanging from the pole. The licorice-whip road is empty, silent, still. No cars coming into town, no cars leaving.
It’s that way for a long time. Then darkness falls.
A car comes. A door slams. Footsteps in the cornfield—the sound of a man shouldering through brittle stalks. The butcher knife that fills his hand gleams beneath the rising moon, and then the blade goes black as the man bends low.
Twisted vines and young creepers root at the base of the pole. The man’s sharp blade severs all. Next he goes to work with a claw-hammer. Rusty nails grunt loose from old wood. A tattered leg slips free… then another… and then a tattered arm….
The thing they call the October Boy drops to the ground.
You can read more HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Dark Harvest is the first and only book I’ve had the pleasure to read by Norman Partridge – but he does have a few other horror titles out. I am excited for his newest release, Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season, from Cemetery Books:
Norman Partridge’s Halloween novel, Dark Harvest, was chosen as one of Publishers Weekly’s 100 Best Books of 2006. A Bram Stoker Award winner and World Fantasy nominee, Partridge’s rapid-fire tale of a small town trapped by its own shadows welcomed a wholly original creation, the October Boy, earning the author comparisons to Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Shirley Jackson.
Now Partridge revisits Halloween with a collection featuring a half-dozen stories celebrating frights both past and present. In “The Jack o’ Lantern,” a brand new Dark Harvest novelette, the October Boy races against a remorseless döppelganger bent on carving a deadly path through the town’s annual ritual of death and rebirth. “Johnny Halloween” features a sheriff battling both a walking ghost and his own haunted conscience. In “Three Doors,” a scarred war hero hunts his past with the help of a magic prosthetic hand, while “Satan’s Army” is a real Partridge rarity previously available only in a long sold-out lettered edition from another press.
But there’s more to this holiday celebration besides fiction. “The Man Who Killed Halloween” is an extensive essay about growing up during the late sixties in the town where the Zodiac Killer began his murderous spree. In an introduction that explores monsters both fictional and real, Partridge recalls what it was like to live in a community menaced by a serial killer and examines how the Zodiac’s reign of terror shaped him as a writer.
Halloween night awaits. Join a master storyteller as he explores the layers of darkness that separate all-too-human evil from the supernatural. Let Norman Partridge lead you on seven journeys through the most dangerous night of the year, where no one is safe…and everyone is suspect.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear