Trick or Treat: a Retrospective by Shannon Ryan

It was the 1980s, and America had stopped panicking about communists under every bed and started panicking about Satanists under every bed.  The main way Satan was influencing America’s teens was Dungeons and Dragons but closely following the Monster Manual was evil magic on Rock and Roll songs that could only be heard when you played them backwards.

If you’re old enough to remember music before the digital age, it was stored on vinyl disks called records that rotated on special players. You could grab the record and manually reverse the direction to hear what it sounded like backwards. Little old ladies spent hundreds of hours listening to Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones a minute at a time, and then slowly backing up the record to listen for naughty words and Satanic messages.

Enter the 1986 movie Trick or Treat, about a boy who summons his favorite heavy metal musician back from hell by playing a record backward, featuring Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne, and a soundtrack by the band Fastway.

At this point, I’m going to throw out a pretty heavy spoiler alert, as there is going to be a bit of commentary and analysis ahead. However, I will refrain from commenting too much or revealing any of the absurdity contained in Act Three.

The movie starts with our hero, a high school student bullied for listening to heavy metal, Eddie Weinbauer, or as he prefers to be called, Ragman. His one true hero is Sammi Curr, a heavy metal singer who went to the same high school as him and writes lyrics like, “Rock’s chosen warriors will rule the apocalypse.” We find out that Curr will not be playing his school’s Halloween dance partly because the city council has forbidden his performance, but mostly because Curr has recently died in a hotel fire.

When Ragman visits his inappropriately older friend Nuke (Gene Simmons), a DJ at a local radio station, Nuke comforts Ragman by gifting him the only copy of Curr’s last album, given to him by Curr to play at the stroke of midnight to terrorize the community who forbade him access to the high school dance. Presumably, it’s okay for Ragman to own the only studio copy of the record because he was a really big fan and Nuke already made a tape of the album to play on Halloween.

When he falls asleep while listening to the only existing copy of a really big rock star’s final album, Ragman dreams of Sammi Curr in hell or maybe just dying in the hotel, there’s definitely a lot of fire either way. When he tries playing the record backwards, he finds it speaks directly to him, like uses his name and everything.

Fun and games ensue as Ragman uses Sammi Curr’s Satanic power to take revenge on his enemies, first by threatening his bullies with power-tool retribution in the school’s metal shop, and then, in a scene that makes the ghost sex in Ghostbusters totally seem not creepy and would totally not be okay in the Me Too era, makes a mix tape that summons a demon to rape the bully’s girlfriend.

At this point, Ragman believes the evil spirit of the heavy metal singer he’s been worshipping has gone too far and tells Sammi he’s going to end their association. However, Sammi doesn’t take this well, threatening the girl Ragman likes, Leslie, and his mother. At this point, we see the first physical manifestation of Curr, who seems to be composed of electrical fields, presumably because electricity powers electronics, and stereo systems are made from electronics. Ragman responds to the manifestation by breaking the record and his stereo system with a baseball bat.

Grounded for breaking his stereo, Ragman then enlists the help of his only age-appropriate friend, Roger, to remove the demon rape mix tape from Bully #1’s car, because for some reason he knew it was there. Roger then ignores the instruction to destroy the tape and to take it home and listen to it instead. Sammi Curr leaps out of his home stereo and threatens Roger, telling him to take the tape and play it at the school dance.

Meanwhile Ragman is at home, still grounded, giving candy to the neighborhood kids.

Roger goes to the dance, plays the tape, and nothing happens. Then the live band is introduced, Curr comes out of the amplifier, presumably because it uses electricity, and starts to sing. At this point, the high school kids seem really excited about his music, despite bullying Ragman for listening to it.

Now, I’m not one to go in for lots of literary analysis, but if the guitar is the symbol for Curr’s penis, he essentially ejaculates lightening bolts at the high school students, which then disintegrates them. Ragman then arrives at the high school and totally fails to prevent Curr from hurting more high school students. Fortunately, Roger shows up and attacks the school’s main power switch with a crowbar, which somehow takes away Curr’s power, as he is sort of powered by electricity in some non-specific way.

And so we move into Act Three with the Ragman hiding from the police, who believe he vaporized several of his classmates after some random kid pointed at him and said, “He did it!” Also, he somehow manages to forget his adult friend is going to play the record that makes the bad man appear at midnight on the radio.

In conclusion, Trick or Treat isn’t full of elements typically associated with horror movies. There is no cabin in the woods full of sharp implements. It is not a splatter fest, there really isn’t a whole lot of blood, just a whole lot of cheap lightening effects and the gratuitous destruction of a lot of electronic devices. But if you’re up for watching a movie that so absurd it’s entertaining, this might lighten the mood of your next Halloween watch party.

Shannon Ryan lives in Marion, Iowa. He writes weird, funny stories in the urban fantasy genre, featuring satanic telemarketers and awkward vampires. His latest book Panic No More is about a computer programmer harassed by a Greek god.

Vintage Sci Fi Reviews: Malzberg’s The Day of the Burning

I didn’t intend to collect Barry Malzberg paperbacks. When I started buying mass market sci fi by lot, an editor I admire asked me to keep an eye out for Malzberg titles (presumably to pass along to him). Well, I did, and the more of them I picked up, the more my intent to let them go weakened. Earlier this week, I finally got around to reading one of them, and man, I’m just as grateful for the nudge towards Malzberg’s work as I am sorry to inform my friend that, nope, I’m keeping these things.

The Day of the Burning (Ace, 1974) is my introduction to Malzberg, and it begins with the hilariously detached protagonist, George Mercer, screwing his girlfriend in his apartment decorated with depictions of Christ’s passion. Sort of. Except there’s an entity only Mercer can see at the foot of his bed who watches the proceeding and offers discouraging commentary as everything rightfully becomes increasingly tense, awkward, and disappointing. The entity—Paul, Mercer calls him—really doesn’t play as big a part in this novel as you’d think, or maybe it just seems that way, since the reader enjoys (presumably) Paul’s inappropriate invasion of Mercer’s life and Mercer’s cynical acceptance of the weird arrangement.

Oh, and in case you hadn’t noticed: Paul, passion (in at least two senses), Mercer’s identification with Christ… yeah, there’s some heavy-handed imagery in Malzberg’s novel, but it does seem to avoid being on the nose since Mercer responds in exactly all the wrong ways to his magnificently important mission to save the world by way of his employment in a federal assistance office. There’s something to be said about the story of Christ being a story of failure, and whatever could be said about it echoes throughout this novel.

Ultimately, I found The Day of the Burning refreshingly bitter, human, and mocking of the utopian techno-future that sci-fi sometimes annoyingly advocates. Also, Malzberg can write. He’s one of those writers one could cite to challenge the ridiculous division between “literary” and “genre” fiction. I fell in love with his long yet precise sentences, the way he can make you laugh while stirring an empathy for the character’s ridiculous circumstance. He’s a writer with a clear love of the language, someone I imagine William H. Gass would’ve enjoyed if the venerable old man would’ve dared to peek over his copy of Stendhal every once and a while (not entirely fair, I admit, but you know what I mean).

It isn’t, however, perfect. Clocking in at a brisk 166 pages (not counting the quaint, full-color cigarette ads clocking in around page 64… “Try the clean, crisp taste of Kent Menthol”), it doesn’t have much room to be. Still, I would’ve preferred a tighter ending, one more in line, perhaps, by Mercer’s dryness. It’s hard to watch his indifference deflate. Then again, the rage of the ending, the bloodcurdling darkness, faintly echoes the termination of the Venus mission that whispers almost subliminally in the background—I can’t help some giddiness at the stirrings of cosmic horror here and there.

Yes, it was good—magnificent, I’d even say. I’m expecting more gems in the Malzberg catalogue.


Justin A. Burnett

Six Great Contemporary Philippine Gothic Tales You Can Read Online: a List by Kristine Ong Muslim

The Gothic tradition reimagined in a Philippine setting—more specifically in a palatial Spanish colonial-era mansion with dingy interiors—is captured in all its glory by a scene in the third installment of the Tagalog film anthology franchise Shake, Rattle & Roll, where the character played by actress Gina Alajar is shown fumbling with a flower pot to gather a handful of loose earth, which she eats. The soil-eating woman is more than just showing signs of mental instability. She is already dead, except a cult has reanimated her to a life-like state. The compulsion to ingest soil is her dead body ’s yearning for decomposition and rest, the things that the cult took away.

I cannot possibly list all the sublime Philippine appropriations of Gothic fiction here, but what I can do now is direct you to six great examples that are available online.

The New Era” by Katrina C. Elauria

If I ever get asked to demonstrate in short fiction the modern-day Philippine transmutation of Gothic sensibility, I’d choose this story by Katrina C. Elauria to illustrate. There’s the slow-burn of terror and awe, mysterious backdrop of politically turbulent times, and unreliable narrator, who has been having fitful dreams and keeps insisting on burying the dead body being ignored by people on the streets. There are also moments when the narrative slips—without really doing a deep dive—into the trappings of paranoid fiction, all languid brushstrokes that heighten the overall sense of foreboding.

The Art House” by Daryll Delgado

This story is the modern Gothic mood delivered in a compressed yet still very much potent form. In “The Art House,” Delgado manages to accomplish a vividly rendered psychogeography in just 594 words. Here, the central character, a woman, wisely flees from a haunted place, her source of torment.

A Ghost Story” by Francezca C. Kwe

This story by Francezca C. Kwe is the finest specimen of the Philippine contemporary Gothic tale. There is nothing in contemporary Philippine literature that comes close to this story’s uncanny contortions of what Ellen Moers defined in 1976 as the “Female Gothic” space. “A Ghost Story” does not stop at the genius loci of “woman in white” haunting a “crumbling stone mansion.” The haunted edifice, a stand-in for the horrific contours of female pain and sexuality that link the women in the story, also becomes a staging point for a dramatic reckoning with Japanese-era Philippine history.

The Pregnant Woman from Zamboanga” by Elizabeth Joy S. Quijano (translated from Cebuano by John Bengan)

The gendered dimensions of the tumultuously haunted place in Kwe’s “A Ghost Story” are recast onto indigenous space in this fantastic translation from Cebuano by John Bengan. Quijano’s “The Pregnant Woman from Zamboanga” layers dark lore with the grim politics of Philippine settler colonialism in indigenous lands. Interwoven are telltale strands of folk horror and the Gothic motif of a woman brutally sacrificed by men to uphold tradition.

Sanctuary” by Eliza Victoria

Even though “Sanctuary” is set in a period when modern technological appurtenances are well within reach of the characters, it still draws from Gothic designs: two women in a seemingly labyrinthine house outfitted with mysterious installations, talks of dream prophecies and visions of death. There is a river where black water flows. There is another woman, too, and she has no face. In lieu of a face is “a depthless shadow.” She is dressed in a black hooded robe, performs what seems to be the function of a modern witch’s familiar, and of course, is created through a summoning ritual.

The Bougainvillea” by Ma. Elena L. Paulma

The ecoGothic or environmental Gothic, a relatively new strain of Gothic fiction, finds its short-form Philippine formulation in this story by Ma. Elena L. Paulma. “The Bougainvillea” talks of a piece of tropical shrubbery that has been causing a spate of demonic possessions in the neighborhood where it is growing. The bougainvillea, representing the pastoral transplanted close to the domicile and usually pruned to control the extent of its natural outgrowth, unleashes its vengeful nature spirits. The results make for a jolting read—maybe even lead to a cursory examination of how our built environments can be ecologically destructive.

Mia Tijam’s opening story in her short fiction collection Flowers for Thursday (forthcoming from the Ateneo de Naga University Press) is inaccessible online but must be mentioned because it is a whip-smart innovation of the ecoGothic experience. The story is a terrifying take on the trope that involves a tree with malign intelligence—a dated story element that manages to endlessly fascinate. It figures in M.R. James’s “The Ash-tree,” a story first published in 1904, and is central to Algernon Blackwood’s 1907 weird fiction classic “The Willows.”


Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of nine books of fiction and poetry, including The Drone Outside (Eibonvale Press, 2017), Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2017), Meditations of a Beast (Cornerstone Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), and Lifeboat (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2015). She is co-editor of the British Fantasy Award-winning People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction as well as the upcoming anthology Sigwa: Climate Fiction Anthology from the Philippines. Her published book-length translation work includes Marlon Hacla’s Melismas (forthcoming from Oomph Press) and There Are Angels Walking the Fields (forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books) and Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s Three Books (Broken Sleep Books, 2020), Hollow (forthcoming from Fernwood Press), Twelve Clay Birds: Selected Poems (forthcoming from University of the Philippines Press), and Walang Halong Biro (De La Salle University Publishing House, 2018). Widely anthologized, Muslim’s short stories have been published in Dazed Digital, World Literature Today, and Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh (Silent Motorist Media, 2019) and were translated into Czech and Serbian.