Strange Highways: The Black Pumpkin by Dean Koontz

October is such a great month, isn’t it? The brutal heat of summer is over and the crispness of autumn is upon us, we’re getting ready for the holiday season, and it all kicks off with the creepy fun of Halloween. Being a former Goth chick, I still have a fondness in my heart for all things dark and eerie, and that includes literature. Each October, I blog all month long books that fall easily into the horror/supernatural genre and we’re continuing that fine family tradition by starting this month’s blog posts off with an anthology of short stories by my second-favorite horror writer of all time, Dean Koontz. (Yes, Stephen King is my numero uno when it comes to authors who write horror and I’m sure that surprises no one.)

The thing about Dean Koontz is that he writes in such a lyrical way about both the beauty and horror of the world. His characterizations are always fascinating, though he does tend to have fairly black-and-white characters, something I’ve seen more of over the years even as his writing has evolved. I don’t mind that, and in fact, it can be refreshing to have those clearly delineated lines of good vs. evil sharply drawn out, though occasionally Koontz’s characters can come across as almost a parody of whichever side they’re on. This is definitely the case in the short story that’s the focus of today’s post.

The Black Pumpkin is the second short story in the collection titled Strange Highways. I actually considered blogging the eponymous first story of the collection, which is itself a strange, dreamlike story of second chances, the terror we sometimes find only within our families, and the left-hand path- and I highly recommend it because it’s genuinely creepy and tense – but I opted instead to go with The Black Pumpkin because it has such a darkly humorous ending and I can’t resist a little giggle of amusement to enhance the flavor of fear.

The tale is short, a mere 19 pages long, and tells the story of Tommy Sutzmann, a young boy trapped in a family of liars, bullies and asshats. He is the lone decent individual, contrasting with his nasty older brother Frank, and his two politician parents. Well, with politicians for parents, are you surprised? Anyway, the parents take the two boys to a pumpkin patch to pick pumpkins to decorate for an upcoming Halloween party. Tommy is drawn to a particularly gruesomely carved black pumpkin, and the very scary pumpkin carver lets him have it for whatever he thinks it’s worth. Tommy’s brother rudely gives the man a nickel for it when Tommy refuses to buy it, but then the scary old man warns that the black pumpkin always gives what is deserved to those who earn it. I’m sure you can guess the rest when the pumpkin comes to life on Halloween night. We’ve got mayhem, murder, and a hilarious final couple of lines when Tommy tells the black pumpkin, after he’s eaten Tommy’s parents and brother:

“You missed a bit,” and pointed to the floor beside his brother’s nightstand. The beast looked at Frank’s severed hand. “Ahhh,” said The Black Pumpkin, snatching up the hand and stuffing that grisly morsel into its mouth.

Yes, I was inspired to create a culinary treat by a gruesome tale of a murderous pumpkin coming to life and going on a killing spree. I know, I know, I’ve been told about this twisted side of myself many times over, and you know what? It’s not going away! 🙂 Pumpkin is, of course, the ultimate symbol of this time of year, representing as it does the changing of the season, the colors of autumn leaves, and is the precursor to jack-o-lanterns that dot our neighborhood houses on All Hallow’s Eve. So I was inspired to make this fall-themed savory pumpkin casserole. Yum!

INGREDIENTS
2 cups wild rice, cooked in chicken stock
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached or roasted
Large handful of fresh sage leaves
2 cups of pumpkin puree
2 generous tablespoons of garlic powder
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
1 cup goat cheese
Salt and pepper
1 cup Italian-style breadcrumbs

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F. Cut the cooked chicken into chunks and season with salt and pepper.

Slice the sage into thin ribbons.

Add the pumpkin puree to the chicken, and mix in the garlic, the sage, the Parmesan and the goat cheese.

Mix well and taste for seasoning before adding any more salt and pepper.

Mix the wild rice with the chicken and pumpkin mixture, then put into a glass baking dish. Top with the bread crumbs and the few remaining bits of goat cheese, then bake for 45 minutes.

Delicious! Rich yet delicate, with the sharpness of the cheese contrasting beautifully with the mellow sage, the savory chicken and the sweet pumpkin. A perfect Halloween meal, with hopes that The Black Pumpkin doesn’t come knocking on your door tonight!

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-García

I’m as guilty as the next person of judging. I judge wine by the label on the bottle, musical artists by genre, and of course, books by their covers. In this case, can you blame me? The cover for Mexican Gothic is stunningly beautiful and hits me on all my levels: aesthetic, moody, mysterious, and colorful. Combined with the word “Gothic,” you’re damn right I pre-ordered this months in advance and devoured it in 6 hours when it finally arrived. It was well worth the wait.

The gist of the book is thus: Noemi is a wealthy socialite living the life in 1950s Mexico. She’s a beautiful and intelligent woman whose chief problem is that she lives in a time and a place where people can’t believe a woman can be both, so she compensates by putting on a bored persona. But inside, she is ready for something more. When her father gets a urgent letter from Catalina, Noemi’s recently-married cousin, indicating she is in danger in her new marriage, he sends Noemi to the town of High Place to find out what is going on and to bring Catalina home if necessary. Not so fast, though. Catalina’s in-laws and new husband are what you’d call shady.

Catalina has married into the very wealthy and extremely weird Doyle family, and boy, do they put the “fun” in “family dysfunction.” The family patriarch, Howard, is beyond creepy. He is somewhere between 90 and death, and is pervertedly fascinated with the beautiful Noemi. Catalina’s husband, Virgil, is handsome and flirtatious toward Noemi, and she is both sexually drawn to him and repulsed by him at the same time. Florence, Virgil’s sister, runs the household like a military commander, not allowing Noemi to do or say anything. You can imagine how well that goes over with a young, independent and intelligent heroine like Noemi.

And then there’s the youngest son, Francis, whose interest in botany, plants and growing fungi – namely mushrooms – are pivotal pieces of the book’s plot. Noemi finds herself becoming friends with Francis and the longer she stays in High Place, the more she starts to be affected by the house, with terrifying dreams and visions, and she starts to suspect that something very weird and very scary is happening. It’s not actually difficult to figure out what the source of the visions and hallucinations are, but it’s part of the fun in reading this beautifully-written and atmospheric novel.

This is a wonderful book that combines mystery with Gothic romance, eugenics with some creepy Mexican folklore, some really great horror elements including ghosts, visions of blood, terrifying dreams, and a unique take on the haunted house trope that makes for some genuinely riveting reading. It actually reminded me quite a lot of the film Crimson Peak, that eerie movie by Guillermo del Toro, with similar elements of hallucinations, incestuous relations, and just that overall sense of mystery and doom.

I’d consider this book more of a slow burn than one of non-stop, intense horror. The horror is there, all right, but it’s more of a low simmer, gradually escalating, grotesque, Lovecraftian, sickening horror that creeps up on you the further into the mystery you get, until you realize you’re trapped with Noemi there with no avenue of escape. I like the intense terror as much as any horror fan, but I really enjoyed the slow build toward the final unraveling of the mystery surrounding the Doyle family.

As with many of the other books I read, I found myself culinarily inspired by a passage that isn’t necessarily a food reference. when Noemi comes across Francis foraging in, of all places, the family cemetery! Hey, whatever floats your boat, right, but it also made me start thinking about what to make with those good ol’, fungus among us, mushrooms!

He glanced down, nodding, looking at his basket. Now that he was with her, she had regained her levity, and she peered curiously at him. “What do you have there?” she asked, pointing at the basket. “I’ve been collecting mushrooms.” “Mushrooms? At a cemetery?” “Sure. They’re all around.” “As long as you don’t plan to make them into a salad.” “What would be wrong with that?” “Only the thought of them growing over dead things.” “But then mushrooms always grow over dead things in a way.”

Yes, I was inspired to make a something from this passage about ‘shrooms growing over dead things. Well, I’m strange like that. Anyway, being that the book was set in Mexico, and that it’s also green chile season here in my home state of New Mexico, I decided a tasty recipe of mushroom, chorizo, and roasted corn queso fundido with homemade tortilla chips was on the menu. And the best part? I got to roast the green chile and the corn outside on my charcoal grill in my new backyard, thus breaking it in! In a manner of speaking. 🙂

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 red onion
6 cloves of garlic
1 lb chorizo sausage, squeezed out of the casing
1 lb white mushrooms, sliced
1 lb bella mushrooms, sliced
1 lb Monterey Jack cheese
1 lb Muenster cheese
1 lb queso fresco
6 Anaheim chile peppers, roasted and peeled
2 fresh ears of corn, still in the husks, roasted and cooled
1 dozen corn tortillas

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven, saute the onion and garlic until soft, then add the chorizo and saute another 10 minutes.

Add in the mushrooms and saute again for another 10 minutes.

Cut the roasted corn kernels from the cobs, then add to the mushrooms and chorizo mixture. I actually did this using a Bundt pan, which was suggested to me by my friend and sous-chef Krista, and it was the best idea ever!

Chop the roasted green chile and add to the other ingredients in the pan.

Cube the cheeses into small pieces and add their gooey, melting goodness to the pan.

Mix everything together and cook on low, covered, so that the cheeses melt and get that lovely, unctuous texture that make your mouth water.

While the cheese is melting, heat the broiler in your oven and slice the corn tortillas into fourths, put on a baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes until they get golden and crispy. Let cool.

Serve the piping-hot, meltingly gooey queso fundido with the tortilla chips and devour. Sooooo delicious, rich and very decadent. Eat this on a day when you haven’t eaten another thing and have gotten in a good hour of cardio. It’s well worth it, and the mushrooms will only make you have visions of heavenly deliciousness!

The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I can’t say enough about Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s writing. It’s absolutely beautiful, lyrical, lush without being overly purple, and whether describing the sensory overload of a roomful of books, the scent of tobacco, the deeply scarlet hue of a woman’s lipstick, or the existential dread and horror of torture and death, the man writes like a magician. I’ve read each of the books in the series over 10 times apiece, and I continue to find small, overlooked details in each one the more I read. The Labyrinth of the Spirits, the fourth and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, draws together the threads splayed out in the previous three books, brings a kind of justice to the Sempere family, and introduces the reader to a very unusual heroine, Alicia Gris.

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The basic premise of this book is the story of Alicia, born in Barcelona, how she loses her parents during the Civil War in Spain, her chameleonlike evolution from petty street criminal to police officer/spy and her connection to Barcelona, Daniel Sempere, David Martín, and Fermín Romero de Torres (in my opinion, one of the funniest and most touching sidekick characters in modern literature and an obvious nod to Sancho Panza); and her connection to the marvelous and terrifying Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you’ve read the three previous books, The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven – all of which I have previously blogged – you will know the overarching storyline. How Alicia fits into this dark Wonderland tale that pays homage to books, literature, freedom, love and mystery, is both beautiful and sad.

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I will say that my only beef with this book is how most of the women are portrayed, as either femmes fatales or saints, which is something I run across in most books where a male writer writes from a female POV. Alicia is a fascinating character. Yes, she is beautiful and somewhat damaged both physically and emotionally and she does have very complex emotions, but she isn’t a homewrecker and the reactions of other female characters to her is somewhat irritating after awhile. No, she isn’t there to steal your man, ok? She’s investigating a disappearance and looking into her own childhood history. Sheesh. I suppose it annoys me because I see so much of this in real life – this Madonna/whore outlook even from other women when they see a physically beautiful woman and automatically assume she is trouble or that she is a man-eater or a slut or all those other awful words that both men and women use to shame females for daring to look a certain way.

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As dark and painful as this book is at times, it is above else, a love letter to reading. The sheer joy of losing yourself in a book is something that every lover of literature can relate to, including me. Alicia has loved books since she was a little girl, and when she is rescued early on in the book from a bombing in Barcelona by our erstwhile Fermín and accidentally falls through the glass roof of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, it completely changes her life, both physically and emotionally. Can you imagine getting lost in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Between the ghosts and mysterious figures that supposedly haunt its corridors, the sheer amount of books to be devoured and the romantic terror implicit in such a place, it sounds like somewhere I could happily spend eternity. With lots of good wine and Spanish tapas, of course.

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Alicia is paired with a detective named Vargas, with whom she has a strong attraction and shares a unique sense of humor. He’s a bit older than her, which is fine with me since I have always preferred older men. They have been tasked with finding Spain’s Minister of Culture, Mauricio Valls, who has mysteriously vanished and with whom the enigmatic David Martin – of The Angel’s Game – has been connected. Valls was responsible for imprisoning and torturing many people during Spain’s Civil War, including Martín, and it’s feared he has been kidnapped in retaliation. The reality, of course, is much more complex and far, far worse. Anyway, once back in Barcelona, Alicia introduces Vargas to many of her favorite haunts from her childhood and adult years living there. The Ribera quarter is home to her favorite tapas bar, appropriately called La Bombeta. There, she orders a plateful of bombas, bread with olive oil and tomatoes, and beer – a quintessential Barcelona treat.

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“Bring us four bombs and two beers,” Alicia instructed, without taking her eyes off Vargas. “Estrella or draft beer?” “Estrella.” “Bread with oil and tomato?” “A couple of slices. Toasted.” The waiter nodded and walked off without more ado………..the beers and the plate of bombas arrived just in time to interrupt the conversation. Vargas eyed that curious invention, a sort of large ball of breaded potato filled with spicy meat.

Bombas are potato balls stuffed with meat and shallow-fried, eaten hot with a cold beverage. They can be stuffed with ground beef, ground pork, chorizo, etc. I ate many of them when I was a student living in Spain, and though they are made in various iterations in different cities, the bomba is a true child of that beautiful, unique and haunting city of Barcelona. This is my take on them.

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INGREDIENTS
6 waxy potatoes
1 yellow onion, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika – also known as pimenton
1 pound uncooked chorizo
1/2 cup Spanish sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water for 20-30 minutes until soft. Push through a potato ricer and stir to mix and break down. Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside to cool.

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Heat some olive oil in a pan and cook the onion and garlic for 10 minutes, until softened. Remove from the pan but leave the oil.

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Add the chorizo and stir, breaking it into smaller pieces, cooking it until it firms up, about 10 minutes.20200120_125638

Add the cooked onion and garlic to the meat, and sprinkle over the smoked paprika. Cook for another 10 minutes.

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Toss in the sherry and cook until the liquid evaporates, then let the meat cool and get on with your potato bombs.

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Form a large ball with the potato and put some of the chorizo-onion mixture in the middle. Close the potato over the meat so it is completely contained. Repeat until you have 6-7 bombas. Lay on a platter and chill for up to 2 hours, if not longer.

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Pour the flour and the breadcrumbs into separate bowls, and crack the egg into another bowl, mixing with a fork and some water and salt.

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Quickly dip the bomba into the egg, then the flour, then the breadcrumbs so it is completely covered, then heat about 3 cups of olive oil in a large pan and toss a small drop of water to test the heat. When the oil sizzles, it’s ready.

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In batches of 3, cook the bombas for about five minutes, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and eat hot, garnished with roasted red peppers, and with a toast to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the Sempere family, and the genius that is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. ¡Salud!

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