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… someday. But 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.
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.
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.