Deadtime Stories

Would-be masters of the macabre bring out their worst.

By Ted Kleine

According to legend the Red Lion is haunted. There’s a “cold spot” on the staircase where drinkers sometimes feel a chill as they tote their pints up to the Churchill Room. Pat the cat, the pub’s late mascot, roams the floors, and sometimes the ghostly father of founder John Cordwell taps on the piano player’s shoulder. “The fact that it is haunted lends itself to what we do,” says Tina L. Jens. “There have been some odd noises at just the right time in a story.”

Jens is the founder of Twilight Tales, a weekly reading series for horror, fantasy, mystery, and science fiction writers. “Many authors work in all of those fields, because the boundaries are very blurry,” says Jens. “To my knowledge, there’s no other genre fiction outlet. If you look at Borders, Barnes & Noble, it’s almost always literary.” On Monday, what was billed as “an all-star lineup of Chicago horror authors” showed up to read their creepy stories at the group’s “Halloween Monster Bash.”

During the week Larry Santoro writes speeches for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, but last weekend he wrote a story called “Root Soup, Winter Soup.” A well-fed man himself, he stood in a circle of light and read it aloud. In the tradition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Campbell’s 100 Best Recipes, it was a hearty cold-weather tale about a crone who discovers that human flesh is the perfect ingredient for her stews. “Maybe after dark, she’d take a jar to the cellar,” he concluded. “Just a little. She wanted him to last. It was going to be a long, long winter. She felt it in her bones.”

The cleverest story of the evening was Rick R. Reed’s “Morbidly Obese,” about an overweight vampire named Milton Bradley who joins a 12-step program to tame his hunger for human flesh. Most of the authors read from computer printouts, but Reed arrived with a hardcover anthology, affecting an arch, drawling voice to illustrate the vampire’s torment. “‘I can’t control my eating,’ he moaned as the bodies piled up around him.” Though he longs for the “gaunt, emaciated look associated with our kind,” the pathetic vampire balloons so much he can no longer fit into his coffin. “It was a good thing,” Reed concluded, “that he never had to look into a mirror.”

Wayne Allen Sallee sounds like the name of a death row inmate, and Sallee looked the part, a black Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer T-shirt stretched over his wiry torso. His essay, “Cyanide and Pixie Sticks,” told the true story of a man who poisoned his son’s candy in the 1970s. “The man who killed Halloween,” Sallee called him. Now, Sallee said, whenever he passed the Nabisco cookie factory on the southwest side, the sweet odor reminded him of “the smell of death.” A man who can find morbidity in the most joyous occasion, Sallee thinks of the Halloween killer whenever he sees children “dumping bags of candy together on the floor and splitting it up.”

Sukie de la Croix could be the least aptly named person in the world; the French-Asian name hangs on a bearded, bespectacled man who affects a sinister feyness, rather like Ian McKellen. He wore a kilt held up by a studded belt and read a poem called “The Secret Monster Dead Celebrity Be Bop a Lula Don’t Mean Maybe Sadomasochistic Drag Queen Rave.” His scatological name-dropping didn’t exactly shock the crowd, but he did draw some nervous laughter as he ranted about the pope chewing abortions, Jesus lying with his “hump whore” Mary Magdalene, and God “ejaculating doll furniture from her womb.”

After de la Croix had listed every dead celebrity from Sharon Tate to Burl Ives, emcee Andrea Dubnick announced the winners of the costume contest, “because no other writer should have to follow that.” De la Croix took third place, behind a woman in black ancient Egyptian makeup. His eventual follow-up act, Bill Breedlove, prefaced his story by declaring, “The only thing I want to do with my life is get my hands on the same drugs Sukie does.” But what Breedlove needs is a sedative. His story began, “Matthew held the Boy Scout hatchet in his hand and knew, just knew, he’d have to bury it in his best friend’s skull.” The tale wasn’t as gruesome as the opening promised. Matthew found a surrogate for his homicidal urge: he glued hair on a cantaloupe, so it looked like his best friend, and split that open.

Throughout the readings, Twilight Tales auctioned off horror memorabilia to raise money for its publishing arm, which issues chapbooks like Cthulhu and the Coeds (or Kids & Squids), a collection of stories inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu.” A video of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, still shrink-wrapped, went for $5. But when writer Martin Mundt offered “immortality”–a chance to be a character in one of his stories–one spectator bid $40, then gave the role to his girlfriend.

Mundt already knows what he’ll write about her. “It’s a story called ‘The Worst Child Actress in the World,'” he said. “It’s a child actress who hit it big, was a one-hit wonder, and her career spiraled downward until she ended up doing something horrible in a 7-Eleven.” The story is a sequel to “The Worst Mime in the World” and “The Worst Clown in the World.” Mundt shrugged. “They’re just easy to pick on.”

Neither Pat the cat nor old Robert Cordwell showed up. Or if they did, they kept quiet. Maybe they were just listening.