Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Ghosts of October

I can sometimes still remember, even all these years later, what autumn smells like.

I’m not talking, mind you, about the artificial fragrances manufactured and sold to us by Starbucks and Yankee Candle.  No, I mean that sweet decay of wet leaves clumped into a strangled quilt in the gutter, carried along by a chilly gust from the Hudson River that would sweep across my Bronx neighborhood, rattling single-paned windows of prewar houses and apartment buildings and hurrying us home before the overcast skies ruptured.  That was my favorite time to be out—when the wind was blowing but not raging, the thunderheads gathering though not yet sobbing.  Such moments were when you could enjoy the stormy sense of danger autumn provoked precisely because you knew, with unshakable certainty, you could beat it home.  I would quite literally venture into the woods, despite Mother Nature’s ominous admonitions, because it felt so good, after thirty of forty minutes of taking in the scented air and golden hues, to finally come in from the cold.  For as far back as my memory extends, I have loved the fall season.

But I barely recollect what the cold feels like any more than I do the perfume of dead leaves.  Real cold, that is—not the regulated airstream that pumps out of the A/C all day and night and lets me pretend, in concert with the aroma of Pumpkin Spice Latte, I’m someplace else.

This is my sixteenth autumn, such as it is, in seasonless Southern California, and now more than ever I miss the changing weather and weeping skies this time of year used to bring; I miss the drives we’d to take up to Sleepy Hollow (the actual one) and Bear Mountain, with its panoply of colored foliage, and riding the Bx9 bus past the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage on the Grand Concourse at East Kingsbridge Road.  I’ve always missed those things—since the day I moved to L.A.  It’s just become more pronounced in recent years.  When I was young and immortal, I was entirely reassured by the infinite number of autumns ahead of me, confident I would get back to them… somedayBut I turned forty earlier this year, a rite of passage which inspires no small degree of existential introspection, and now I wonder how many more I’ll miss out on here in the Land of Sunshine and Strip Malls, with its palm trees that remain as reliably green throughout the year as the weather stays hot and dry.  These days, my favorite holiday, Halloween, mostly just reminds me of the particular autumnal delights even Hollywood, for all its world-building artifice (those signature palm trees aren’t indigenous), can’t credibly reproduce.

A photo I took on December 22, 2013 of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, built 1697

A photo I took on December 22, 2013 of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, built 1697

Someone asked me, quite recently, why I love the spooky season so much, and I found myself, as I answered, really thinking through the issue for the first time in my life.  Why do I love Halloween?  Why do l love monster movies?  Why do I love these things that, ostensibly, inspire such fear and dread—that represent death instead of life, dark instead of light, cold instead of warmth?

I recall spending long weekend afternoons in the Octobers of the early eighties watching (usually on local TV, since we didn’t have a VCR) John Carpenter’s Halloween—and The Amityville Horror and Children of the Corn and The Omen and Poltergeist and Night of the Creeps and Squirm and Creature from the Black Lagoon—and being rapt with terror; my sister and I would be tensed into fetal balls on the couch, scared shitless but unable to look away.  And when it was over, there we found ourselves, in the hearth of apartment 8A—the two-bedroom rental that was our home from 1976 through 1996.  It was the safest place in the world.  That the wind outside thrashed our crumbling terrace door in its splintered wooden frame only bolstered the impression of sanctuary:  Inside the walls of that apartment, we were safe from everything.  Scary movies were just a joyful reminder that the boogeyman was out there, but he wasn’t getting in here.  So, I’d say that Halloween, for me, is a season of delightful incongruities:  What’s scary about it only makes me feel safe; what’s cold and gray about it only reminds me of how warm it felt to be home.

Any sense of security I had was an illusion, of course—a privilege of childhood naïveté—that can never be recaptured; I realize that.  That’s the sort of thing they mean when they say you can never go home again.  But the warmth the season inspired—that particular holiday texture that makes the ordinary world so magical between October and New Year’s—was real; time and experience have proven that to me with certainty.  Because that’s the thing about L.A. I’ve come to realize over the past fifteen years:  It has heat, but it does not have warmth.  There’s no contrast—it’s more or less the same all the time:  sunny skies, balmy breezes, low humidity.  This is as true of the Fourth of July as it is of Christmas Day.

I know—boohoo.  Fair enough.  But as an artist, I find such static conditions woefully uninspiring, and as a capital-R Romantic (per my wife’s assessment), inconsolably depressing.  The human brain, as any good storyteller knows, thrives on contrast:  An effective narrative will change tempo by skillfully altering the length, emotional content, and settings of its scenes.  (It’s the reason why Michael Bay movies, with their relentless bombardment of computer-generated metal-on-metal action, are so monotonous and emotionally disengaging.)  Living in Los Angeles is akin to being in the Nexus from Star Trek Generations (“an extradimensional realm,” per Wikipedia, “where time has no meaning and anyone can experience whatever they desire”):  Enjoyment of its “perfection” is hampered by a persistent nagging feeling that, well, it just ain’t real.  But… literally everyone I’ve discussed this with has assured me how lucky I am to be here versus there—to be emancipated from the fluctuations, the vagaries, of the East Coast climate.  And if everyone’s saying it, they must be right.

Right?

Best spouse ever: My lovely wife goes out of her way to endow our home with the spirit of the fall season

Best spouse ever: My lovely wife goes out of her way to endow our home with the spirit of the fall season

In New York, I was a boy who enjoyed horror and dark fantasy; in L.A., I’m a man who now writes it for a living.  I suspect the reason for the latter is because supernatural stories exist in a lost world I yearn for—a Gothic landscape of jaundiced leaves whipped by the Hudson hawk across battle-gray skies, of bare windblown branches clambering at the full moon, where werewolves howl and headless horsemen gallop, and we’re all running as fast as we can to beat them home.  I mean, I’ve always written horror (I earned accolades in fifth grade for my illustrated short story “Turn the Streetlights Out,” about a demonic shadow that murders those who inadvertently cast it), but given that an author lives in the world of his story for however long it takes him to write it, he tends to choose—is advised to choose—places he himself won’t mind spending months or even years.  Escape from Rikers Island, my forthcoming debut horror novel, takes place during a frigid winter night (my second-favorite season) on the East River; my follow-up book will be a supernatural romance set against the New York campaign of the Revolutionary War in the Lower Hudson Valley during the autumn of 1776.  Such are the seasons and settings about which I fantasize, both personally and professionally, their sensory pleasures these days mere fictions conjured from imagination, like the ghouls and goblins that haunt them—the very ones that keep me ever and always hustling for home, hopeful I’ll get there before time runs out.

16 Comments

  1. Thanks Sean for reminding us of the special feeling we get this time of year in our beautiful Hudson Valley.

    • Thanks, Dan, for reading and commenting. I think it says something significant about the Hudson Valley that one of our first American authors, Washington Irving, set so much of his fiction there, and that it inspired him to write so lyrically about the landscape and its particular tranquility. (And that he was a writer of fantasy and horror makes me wonder why the genre struggles still, in a post–Stephen King world, to gain acceptance/legitimacy in academic and literary circles.) Much of the region has been developed since Irving’s time, obviously, but enough of it — like, for instance, Riverdale Park — has been preserved, and has retained the atmospheric harmony I suspect charmed Irving himself once upon a time.

  2. This time of year always brings “Something Wicked This Way Comes” to mind. You have a very strong emotional connection to the season. That will no doubt make for great tone and color in your work.

    • Thank you, Camilla! You know, I often wonder if I’d be more inspired — if my fiction would be imbued with a more tactile sense setting and season — if I were writing in the area where most of my stories are set. Perhaps it would. But there’s also an argument to be made that it’s the very longing I feel for the Northeast that gets expressed in my work — that by forcing myself to remember what it felt like to be there, no detail gets overlooked or taken for granted. I like to think, for that reason, I’m creating a more sensory-immersive reading experience than I might otherwise have. I guess we’ll find out when Escape from Rikers Island is published…

      A quick plug: Fans of horror and dark fantasy should check out Camilla’s novel (written with Bonita Gutierrez) The Werewolf Whisperer, which I believe can be downloaded free of charge for a limited time via Amazon.

  3. I love fall too and as I sit at my desk, taking a much needed break from the words of my own novel, I look out the window to the trees draining of their summer greens for the more vibrant hues of autumn. The skies are gray today. I don’t look forward to the biting winds coming in a few weeks that will rip those leaves off their branches and require me to don several layers to keep the blood warm in my extremities. I love the boldness of fall and the heat of summer. The other seasons I can do without. Maybe it’s because I grew up at the shore and my town didn’t come to life until Memorial Day weekend. In the winter, as kids, we were often at a loss for things to do since our world usually revolved around beaches, boardwalks and bike rides.

    I envy you the constant sunshine and predictable weather. Being outside ignites my muse. As the days shorten and grow cold I will wish for time wrapped under a blanket instead of the wanting to seize the day. It’s all in the perspective.

    Enjoy your Halloween, no matter where you are. Visit with those memories of days gone by and the boogeyman on your tv. Fall and all its splendor will be here when you get back. It’s an old friend you can count on to pick up exactly where you left off. It won’t forget you.

    • Thanks, Stacey!

      I dump on L.A. a lot, but there’s no question that what it lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in convenience: I never have to worry about forgetting my gloves or scarf. I never have to walk my dog in the driving rain. I never have to shovel my car out of snow. And even in the height of summer, I can wear the same T-shirt for several days in a row without ever getting it sweaty, because the apartment isn’t permeated in a swampy brume of humidity. Having to deal with all that again — I lived in New York for a quarter century — would certainly inspire the occasional bout of frustration (I am a short-tempered Irishman, after all!). And I admittedly have a propensity to view the grass as greener over yonder (perhaps I ought to re-watch The Nightmare Before Christmas again for an object lesson in that fallacy), so I am constantly trying to find balance between my more romantic impulses and my learned pragmatism — trying to find perspective, to use your word for it. Writing certainly helps with that — Stephen King once described it as “refined thinking” — which is where essays like this come from: They are as much about me seeking insight into myself as they are offering insight about myself to others.

      In his writing instructional The Successful Novelist, author David Morrell (creator of Rambo) advises writers, when they’re editing their own material, to print drafts in different fonts, and to revise them in different places — even if it’s just another side of the room. The reason for that, he says, is because you need to give your eyes new perspective on your work any way you can, and little tricks like that help the “manuscript take on a new reality.” I think that, for me, is what the change of seasons does: It gives me new perspectives on old places — new realities, in a way. And L.A., love it or leave it, is the same all the time: the weather is boring; the architecture is boring; the people are even boring, given that this is a one-industry town. And I’ve definitely been asking myself lately if this is where — if this is how — I want to spend my forties and beyond.

      All that said, I am absolutely delighting in the Halloween season this year (I don’t want to be like Linus and miss out on it while waiting for something “better”), carving pumpkins and revisiting some of my favorite fright flicks, and refining my own contribution to the genre — Escape from Rikers Island — a little more every day. Even this essay is a way of celebrating the wonders of autumn, if only in absentia. Thanks for joining me!

      Sean

  4. I know what your saying about living in a place where the weather doesn’t really seem like it changes. I live in Texas. And after the brutal summers, we live for the cool days of Autumn. Thank you for reminding me how wonderful they can be.

    • Thank you so kindly, Becky, for taking the time to read the post and leave a comment! I’ve only been through Texas once, very briefly, while driving to Los Angeles in the days after 9/11, so I didn’t get the chance I would’ve liked to immerse myself in its culture. But my wife and I recently took a road trip through several of the western states — Utah, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado — and hope to explore more yet, making our way over to Texas and Louisiana… eventually. Experiencing contrasting climates and cultures — and we have many of both right here in the U.S. — is one of the great pleasures of being an artist and a human being.

      Happy Halloween to you! Please feel free to contribute your thoughts to the blog again…

      Sean

  5. I love the changing seasons, Sean, and haven’t lived anywhere without the excitement of colorful leaves, the first snow, the return of the flowers and trips to the swimming hole. I completely understand why you miss it. October is the perfect time for hunkering down in our cozy homes, protected from the wind and cold and increasing darkness. What a perfect time of year for Halloween and being scared out of our wits. Ha ha. Lovely post, my friend.

    • Oh, thank you, Diana! I figured if anyone would be able to appreciate my perspective on this matter, it would be a fellow lover of the natural world like yourself! In my experience, there seem to be two types of folks that come to L.A.: the kind that can’t wait to go back from where they came, and the kind that never look back. I always viewed Los Angeles as a way station — something I was doing “for now” — and have very much felt, over the last eighteen or so months, that this little experiment has runs its course. Naturally, it’s easier to pack up and leave a place in your mid-twenties than it is your early forties, so there are complications keeping me from making my escape from L.A. But, as a writer of fantasy, you yourself know that fiction exists, among other reasons, to provide us with the experience of visiting worlds out of our reach, be them lost to history, in the uncharted depths of the sea or cosmos, places of pure imagination, or even very real locales we dream of but can’t, for whatever reason, get to. In that sense, my own fictions are something of a fantasy travelogue, built on memories of New York I hold dear, and hope to augment yet.

      Thanks for taking the time to lend your perspective to all this, pal! Your support is always appreciated.

      Sean

  6. One of the great joys of returning to the East Coast has been the fall season. There’s nothing like walking the dogs on a brisk, windy morning. I never fully appreciated the spectrum of leaves until I was absent their beauty for a decade. I loathe the heat. Summer is my least favorite season. Fall/Winter is as good as it gets! The crackle and smell of firewood. The charged energy in the air for the “holiday” season, even if people begin it way too early. And of course, a Lord of the Rings marathon, cozied up for hours on the couch.

    • Yet another thing we have in common, Jeff: an intense distaste for hot weather. Admittedly, East Coast summers were never my favorite season, but at least we had fall and winter; their contrast was welcome. It’s the contrast more than anything, really, I miss the most.

      As a screenwriter, you know that living out in L.A. is a necessary evil for establishing a career; in that regard, I certainly don’t regret the decision to have come, given how much I’ve learned and taken from my experiences out here. But, in light of the dismal state of commercial filmmaking at present — the studios’ overreliance on both branded content and the same hermetic stable of go-to filmmakers they employ to recycle “the ephemera of a previous century” — I might advise anyone considering a move to L.A. to take their shot at screenwriting to think long and hard about that: The odds of selling original material and/or establishing a career are slimmer than ever, and if L.A. isn’t your cup of tea, it can be a tiresome, even depressing place to live. I don’t know about you, but being an author has been a far more creatively fulfilling experience than being a screenwriter ever was: I get to follow my instincts without the shouting voices of managers and agents and producers weighing in with their stupid, senseless, reactionary notes. I get to write what I want, the way I want it. (I should’ve bailed on screenwriting for novels a decade ago!) The only thing that would make it all perfect would be to be doing it from the East Coast again. But that day, sure as hell, is coming…

      Thanks for chiming in, my brother. Hope you’re enjoying your New England autumn!

  7. Totally understand, Sean! Being a southern Cali native, I grew up wanting the indoor schools, coats and boots, piles of leaves and snow.

    I’ve had all of that and more after living in Wisconsin and now here (minus the piles of snow, thankfully!). I’m happy to be closer to LA though, I must admit, because I’ve been going through the opposite problem of pining over sunshine. Luckily, I can go get my dose when I need it.

    • Hey, Britt! How funny that we both blogged this month about the effect the changing season is having on us!

      I didn’t realize you were a SoCal native! I guess it’s just human nature to long for what we don’t have — to view the grass as being greener over there — and I have certainly been guilty of that throughout my life. My yearning to be back home — certainly exacerbated by everything I discussed in the above post — is an emotionally complicated issue, if I’m being perfectly candid: My distaste for Hollywood the industry has probably colored my view of Hollywood the city. I’m also finding myself, after recently turning forty, ready to be closer to family once again; I think I’ve fully expelled at this point the wanderlust that led me away from New York in the first place. So, like everything in life, it is a confluence of circumstances weighing on my mind and shaping my feelings about what appears to be, on the surface, a very simple, localized matter. Writing about these things — and discussing them with fellow bloggers like yourself — helps me work through them, helps me find the connections between seemingly unrelated concerns of the heart. Do you find the same?

      Thanks, Britt — always happy to have your contributions.

      Sean

  8. Mary Lee Murphy

    November 1, 2016 at 6:47 am

    That was beautiful Sean! I totally agree with you…..I do love all the seasons. And the anticipation of them also. I so wish I could send a pumpkin pie to you!
    But they are best eaten fresh. Perhaps one day? Love and hugs, Aunt ML

    • Aunt Mary Lee! So nice to have you chime-in on the blog! Thanks for reading the post and leaving a few nice words about it — that means the world.

      Oh, you cannot imagine how I am jonesing for your homemade pumpkin pie right about now! I carry with me so many nice memories of all the Thanksgivings we spent in each other’s company — including ’89, when it snowed on Thanksgiving Day! — and I am confident the day when we are able to celebrate together once more isn’t too far off. In the meantime, you enjoy the season — and I will do the same, thinking of you all and the warmth I felt in the presence of family year after year after year.

      Love,

      Sean

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