When the doorbell rang, Allan Sontag’s head jerked up from the book he had been absorbed in and oriented not on the front door but the clock on the mantle. It read 9:14 p.m. and Allan frowned at it. He genuinely had believed that once he made it to 9 o’clock, he was more or less in the clear. He sighed forcefully through his nose and dropped his eyes to the page once more.
Halloween was one of Allan’s least favorite nights of the year. He did not consider himself a hermit, exactly, but certainly preferred a solitary evening of reading to socializing. Not that a steady stream of children tromping up his front walk, banging on the doorframe or leaning on the bell, only to shriek demands for candy when Allan opened the door, counted as socializing by any reasonable definition. He preferred instead to opt out of the event altogether, and wished only that others would respect that decision.
The doorbell rang again, and although it was the identical high-low chime as before, it somehow felt more insistent. Allan scowled at his book and remained stubbornly seated. The problem with opting out of Halloween, when one was already limited to interactions of minimal politeness with one’s neighbors, was conveying that decision, since everyone generally assumed he would participate, children especially. Allan avoided any appearance of Halloween enthusiasm on his front porch, with not so much as a single uncarved pumpkin in sight. Compared to the houses on either side, with their blinking orange and purple lights in the shrubbery, their massive inflatable spiders and their posed zombie mannequins, Allan’s house displayed proud and profound ignorance to the time of year. He gave no outward reason for even the most dull-witted child to assume he was dispensing treats, in contrast to the easy targets bordering his property, and any child who made the pointless effort of trying deserved the disappointment of being pointedly ignored. Allan placed a finger on the open book so that he would not lose his place again, and read on.
A third time the doorbell rang, and Allan ground his teeth. Early in the evening, the younger set would be toddling from house to house with their parents nearby, and at least the adults had the good sense to urge their offspring to move along after two unanswered attempts at the bell. But after dark the callers were likely to be unsupervised teenagers who found it hilarious to harass him with ringing after ringing. Allan placed a bookmark in the book and set it down on the table beside his chair, and rose to answer the door.
Fortunately, Allan had a plan for dealing with those incapable of interpreting his undecorated, unwelcoming front yard and facade. He would open the door and deliver a lecture about the immoral evils of Halloween, how the devil delighted in leading children astray into worshipping him, and he would suggest they pray for God’s forgiveness for their faithlessness. This sent unwanted callers scurrying back off his porch very quickly, and helped cement his reputation around town as fervently anti-Halloween as word spread from those unlucky enough to have been on the receiving end to their friends, and their friends, and on and on. He had deployed the lecture for the first time a few years ago, and had noticed a precipitous drop-off in trick-or-treaters the following year, and none at all last year. He had been so close to everyone bypassing him this year, as well.
Once again it occurred to him that he might find teenagers on the other side of the door, possibly spoiling for a confrontation with Old Man Sontag the Halloween Hater, tales of which would enhance their reputations for being cool and tough. He was prepared for this as well, as he would inform the wayward youths that his house had a doorbell camera which had captured all their faces, and that he was more than willing to call the police if they did not depart his property immediately. The first part was plausible but a lie, while the second was deeply true.
Steeling himself, Allan reached the front door and opened it, but found neither an intrepid little princess with a pink plastic pumpkin bucket nor a gang of surly high schoolers holding pillowcases and passing off old fright wigs as costumes. A man stood on the bare planks of the front porch, where a welcome mat would have been positioned if Allan had not been so averse to appearing at all welcoming. The man was tall, his face gaunt and pale, not in the manner of Halloween makeup or mask but apparently a natural pallor. His frame was wrapped in a dark blanket held closed in front from within, covering his entire body except for his feet, which were bare. That was disconcerting, but barely worth a glance in comparison to the look on the man’s face. He smiled at Allan, an expression which stretched the bony features with sincere pleasure, as if he had just delightedly happened upon an old friend in an unexpected setting. No sooner had Allan categorized the look as such when the man said, “Ah, so you are at home. How wonderful.”
“Can … can I help you?” Allan asked, so disoriented by the man’s appearance and demeanor that he fell back on the most rote habits for dealing with strangers.
“You already have,” the man said. He beamed at Allan, giving no indication that he wished to be invited in, or what the purpose of his visit might be. He merely added, “It’s impressive, in a way. It requires a certain amount of effort to shun your own community so thoroughly.”
Allan’s eyebrows knitted together as he tried to determine whether or not he had just been deliberately insulted. He paid his taxes and otherwise upheld the social contract, keeping his yard well-tended and his house maintained. Just because he had no desire to waste an entire evening at the beck and call of every sweet tooth of the town’s underage population did not mean he considered himself a pariah. “Now look here …” Allan began.
The man on the front porch ignored him. “And all that malarkey about how Hallow's Eve is Satan’s birthday, and those who revel in it are bound for damnation, do you actually believe that?” he asked, cocking his head in good-natured expectation of the answer.
Allan’s mouth popped open wordlessly. He did not belong to any particular church, let alone a fire-and-brimstone congregation; he had seen a homemade flyer delineating most of the lecture’s points in the grocery store once, clearly posted by a concerned and overzealous fellow citizen. The entire speech was nonsense to Allan’s agnostic mind, but it had always served its purpose, until tonight. “I …”
The man on the porch waved his response away with a skeletal hand which returned to the folds of the blanket as quickly as it had emerged. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s foolish claptrap, completely devoid of any semblance to reality. If you did believe it, or if you didn’t yet were hiding behind it as a convenient blind, either way you would have rejected the rituals which give this night its true meaning and power.”
Allan blinked in disbelief. It suddenly occurred to him that the strange figure before him was nothing more than some local busybody trying to live out an off-season rendition of A Christmas Carol, fixated on showing him the error of his ways and teaching him the true meaning of Halloween or somesuch. His indignation rising, Allan snapped, “It seems to me that you have been brainwashed by corporate advertising into confusing spending ungodly sums of money on disposable costumes, electricity-wasting decorations, and overpackaged chocolates with some kind of cultural tradition. If you refuse to mind your own business, then you might do well to at least consider what motivates someone to reject such mindless consumerism.”
The gaunt man chuckled. “I can tell by your passion that you are speaking quite sincerely now,” he said, “but you still manage to miss the mark. Your neighbors do seem to be engaging in a bit of excessive one-upmanship, I grant you.” The man looked from side to side, taking in the houses beside Allan’s, and Allan reflexively followed suit. To the left, he could make out the twinkling autumn-hued lights, although there also appeared to be more intervening shadows than there should have been. To the right, the thrumming of the large fan keeping the nylon tarantula inflated mixed with the growl of the motors that moved its articulated front legs, but the noise was muted, and the spotlight trained on the display seemed dimmed by a veil.
“But ritual is still ritual, even in excess,” the man on Allan’s porch said, drawing Allan’s attention back to him, dominating Allan’s field of vision, while the neighbor’s houses receded, impossibly far away. “And ritual is still ritual even if humbly followed,” the man went on. “Not all that much is required, really. A spare gourd from the harvest, carved and lit by a single candle? A grotesque rendered in charcoal on an old sack? A pittance, no more.”
All of Allan’s bluster had left him, ebbing away as quickly as it had come. “Why ...?” he managed weakly.
“So long as you make even a token effort, you become part of the larger community and are sheltered by the efforts of all,” the man went on. He was still smiling, but there was something predatory in the way he bared his teeth. “But deny the ritual and you are denied all its benefits.”
“Denied …?” Allan echoed. His own voice sounded eerily harsh, almost unrecognizable. He was unable to look away from the gaunt man’s eyes, even as the darkness beyond the edge of the front porch swirled and danced, the shadows taking on cavorting shapes that inexorably crept closer and closer to the house.
“Tonight belongs to the creatures of fear,” the man said. “Creatures capable of inspiring fear and yet forever reeling from it. Long ago, long before your electricity and your corporate advertising,” he sneered, “mortals realized they could frighten away those creatures before they could do any harm, and the mortals dedicated themselves to doing so with the tools at hand, with fires and totems. They fought fear with fear, and kept safe in the night.”
“Safe from what?” Allan whispered helplessly as he watched a worm crawl out from a small hole in the gaunt man’s tattered blanket.
“From the unliving,” the man replied, “those touched by death, suffused with death, its carriers and its thralls. We are separated from life and light in so many ways, but in the dark depths of this one night a year, the boundaries are weak and the ways are laid open.” As he spoke he spread his arms, parting the blanket wrapped around him, which Allan now knew was not a blanket at all but a threadbare burial shroud. The worm that had emerged a moment ago was only one of countless crawling things that writhed along the man’s moldering, shapeless garments, centipedes and mites and rove beetles and blowflies and moths, all the scavengers which feasted upon the dead.
“Yet even when we slip our shackles,” the man said, though Allan realized it was no merely cadaverous man but an ambling cadaver, an inhuman thing spawned from the black soil of the grave, “even then we are too often kept at bay by the mortal wards of bright flame and monstrous disguisement. So thank you, Allan Sontag, for insisting on your obstinate gap in the defenses, your crack in the facade, your unprotected holdout. Thank you for dissuading every last child in devilish masquerade from even setting foot on your patch of Earth and barring our procession. Thank you for making this place, on this night, so very hospitable to us all.”
Moths’ wings fluttered and beetles’ jaws clacked, and the gloom and murk all around Allan’s house surged toward his front door. Shadows churned like a hurricane, at once as dry as tomb dust and as moist as a fungal swamp, as cold as moonlit iron and as hot as the exhalations of a crematorium. Allan had but a moment to wonder if he had exposed his town, his state, the entire world to an incursion of the unliving, or if the price of isolation from the rituals were truly his alone to pay. Then life itself became a distant notion, on the far side of an impassable divide, while death claimed him for its own.