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!

The Face by Dean Koontz

I’ve been reading Dean Koontz’s books since I was in 7th grade and came across one in the school library at St. Michael’s Catholic School, and devoured it in three hours. I was hooked from then on, though his books are definitely hit-or-miss. His style has evolved  over the years, from the straightforward horror of serial murderers,  scientifically modified creatures escaped from laboratories, and crazed voodoo killers, to more metaphysical meanderings over the years. He has written about life after death, surviving plane crashes, reincarnations………with his unique style of description. He knows how to create characters that stay with you.

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The Face is my own personal favorite, because it seamlessly melds the metaphysical with the supernatural with the harsh reality of modern-day Los Angeles. The main character, Ethan Truman, is a retired police officer who now is head of security for a world-famous actor. His childhood best friend Duncan Wheeler has recently died – or has he? – and it is this “death” and some very creepy and strange letters addressed to his movie-star employer from an unknown stalker, that propel him into this mystery.

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There is, of course, the serial stalker/killer Corky Laputa who provides the intense antagonist viewpoint, and the child character, Aelfric, who provides Ethan with someone to protect and is at the heart of one of the book’s most throat-grabbing mysteries. It’s a seriously good read, but also made me think about quite a lot of stuff.

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The metaphysical meanderings on life, death, good, evil, Heaven and Hell, are what I particularly enjoyed, because these are questions we all ask ourselves. Does good always win over evil? Is there life after death? What truly awaits us after we die? Are we so certain we’ll end up in Heaven or Hell, or whatever constitutes our personal visions of these places?

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In one scene, Ethan meets up with his former police partner, Hazard Yancy, and one of my favorite characters. Yancy is still on the LAPD, a detective with a huge appetite and heart of gold. Ethan buys him lunch at a local Armenian restaurant, and Yancy essentially orders the entire menu. Ethan has just had an intense scare involving a potential suspect in the stalking case, and he is questioning his entire grip on his sanity, and reality. His order of Moroccan salmon and couscous goes uneaten, though it sounded quite delicious.

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Two waitresses were required to bring all the food to the table. Hazard grinned and nodded as each dish was placed before him: “Nice. Nice. That’s nice. Real nice. Oh, very nice.” The memory of being shot in the gut spoiled Ethan’s appetite. As he picked at his Moroccan salmon and couscous, he delayed bringing up the issue of Rolf Reynerd.

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So this was my latest recipe – salmon with a Moroccan-style sauce called chermoula and lemony couscous studded with fresh vegetables – inspired both by this wonderful book and a great desire for some clean eating after the excesses of Thanksgiving Day.

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INGREDIENTS
For the salmon and chermoula sauce:
4 salmon fillets, deboned and deskinned
6 cloves of garlic, divided
2 tablespoons cumin
Pinch of saffron threads, soaked in a bit of white wine or chicken stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 green onions, sliced
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh mint
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes

For the couscous:
1 cup couscous
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half

METHOD
In a small food chopper, add the garlic cloves, cumin, green onions, saffron, mint, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, some salt, and chili flakes. Pulse until well mixed.

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Brush the top of the salmon fillets with the chermoula sauce and let sit for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat a stovetop grill pan to medium high, and grill the salmon fillets about 3-4 minutes per side. Let cool while you make the couscous.

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Boil the chicken stock with the remaining tablespoons of lemon juice, and pour it over the couscous.  Add the peas and tomatoes, stir briefly, cover with plastic wrap and let the liquid absorb, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

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Serve the salmon atop a bed of couscous, and garnish with the remaining chermoula sauce. Apply to your face.

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