The time: the waning years of the 1990s at the dawn of the millennium.
The place: an isolated rural town called Auburn, which could be anywhere at all—a town where everyone knows everyone else—where dark secrets run through its veins like blood.
Everyone knows that sixteen-year old Mikey Childress is "different." A target for bullies since he was a small boy, everything Mikey does attracts abuse: the way he walks, the way he talks, the way he looks. Everyone knows he's not like the other boys in Auburn—the boys who play hockey, who fight, the boys who pursue girls. Only his friend Wroxy, a girl almost as isolated as he is, can even guess at the edges of his pain, or the depths of his yearning for love.
But even the people who hate Mikey couldn't dream of how many secrets he has, or how badly he could hurt them if he wanted to.
Until the night Mikey is pushed beyond endurance by his abusers. The night he makes a pact with dark forces older than time to visit a terrible vengeance on his enemies. The night he inadvertently opens a doorway that should never, ever have been opened, and unleashes something into the world that should have remained damned.
From Michael Rowe, the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated author of Wild Fell and Enter, Night comes a Faustian tale of the horrific cost of the murder of innocence in a small town, and of the vicious price extracted for the ultimate revenge.
October by Michael Rowe takes us to the waning years of the 1990s, to an isolated rural town called Auburn, which could be anywhere at all—a town where everyone knows everyone else—where dark secrets run through its veins like blood. Where everyone knows that sixteen-year old Mikey Childress is "different." But even the townsfolk aren't ready for the night he makes a pact with dark forces older than time to visit a terrible vengeance on his enemies. A delicious story ready-made for the season! – Sandra Kasturi
"October is the kind of horror novel a lot of adults needed when they were kids. Michael Rowe understands that while it gets better for some people, not everyone can afford to sit back and wait if they want to survive. A powerful and powerfully frightening tale about making hard choices in the name of survival, and what those choices cost. Because becoming who you are really means making a deal with the Devil. And sometimes, the Devil is the only one who really understands."– Bracken MacLeod, author of Stranded and 13 Views of the Suicide Woods
"Michael Rowe's talent shines through in this terrifying story of social persecution, black magic, and desire gone horrifically wrong. Readers will immediately identify with the story of Mikey Childress, and they'll hold on for dear life as Mikey's search for acceptance and a dream of love drag them across a jagged terrain of brutality and indifference. With October, Rowe taps into the primal terrors of a teen's life, exploring the loneliness and misery of an outcast who finds his only salvation in a vicious, dark place."– Lee Thomas, Lambda Literary Award- and Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The German and Down on Your Knees
I would die for love, Mikey Childress thought, as he lay on his bed in the airless heat of his bedroom. Yes, I would die for it.
Sweat made his black Misfits t-shirt cleave to his skinny torso like a second skin. Mikey rolled over on his stomach and buried his face in his pillow, closing his eyes. In the red darkness there he called forth a familiar waking dream. He contemplated love. Not sex necessarily, just love. Just not being alone. That would be the key.
Mikey conjured the sense of a warm body spooning into him, his narrow shoulders pressed against a stronger, larger upper chest, of arms encircling him from behind. They would be the sort of arms that could throw a football in a perfect arc, the sort of arms that hang insolently out the driver's-side window of a car—sinewy biceps and thick, capable forearms that ended in hands that were rough from sports, strong and capable and authoritative. He imagined his lower back and ass pressing into a solid pelvic basin and the hungry, pressing swell of desire he would find there. He called forth a pair of powerful legs, one of which would be thrown possessively over his own thigh, pulling him into the fully conjured body he now imagined claiming him with an irrevocable desire he didn't want to resist, even if he could resist.
He ground his pelvis into the mattress of his confining single bed, finding familiar comfort in the sensation of pressure against his groin.
What could be sweeter?
Mikey sighed as he imagined laying his head gently against the base of the phantom's hard clavicle. He dared to imagine the solid knob of an Adam's apple against the back of his head. The dream-arms pulled him in closer, making him feel as weightless as an autumn leaf. He sighed again, holding the sorcery of the moment, knowing it would vanish the instant he opened his eyes and let in the cruel light. He closed his eyes tightly, summoning the incubus with all his might. With the intensity of a prayer, or a spell, he willed the invisible to become visible, gave it flesh and muscle and heat. And love. Endless, everlasting love.
Someone to love me, someone to hold me, someone to protect me. Someone to be all mine. Yes, I would die for it. If I met the witches tonight, I'd tell them I would kill for love.
In August, in a small town, there is still peace for a teenage outcast like Mikey Childress.
An outcast can still choose his companions in August and is, for the most part, subject only to his own demands. He can make his own hours. Hell would begin again in a few short weeks when school resumed. At that time he would again be subject to schedules not of his making and companions not of his choosing, and the daily dread that had to be endured beyond the point of being endurable.
The town of Auburn dozed at the foot of the cliffs and ravines of the Niagara Escarpment under the heavy August sky like a stout country dowager in a rocking chair, one who had gathered the rich southern Ontario farmland around her like a quilt in order to ward off an imaginary chill. Wedged between Milton and Campbellville, Auburn thought of itself as a self-contained universe and was smugly proud of what it considered its separate identity. It had a population of 3,200 souls, and few of them would want to live anywhere else. Main Street ran the length of the downtown core, such as it was, and was lined with shops, the post office, the library, the town hall, and the offices of the local paper, the AuburnGazette.
In the residential section near downtown, the streets were wide and deep, the houses set back from the road on good-sized lots under an arching cathedral of poplar, elm, and maple trees. Most of the houses dated from the nineteenth century and were done in the classic southern-Ontario style of muted red brick with white gingerbread trim. The lawns were well-tended, the walkways bordered with shrubs and flowerbeds. In the summer, the somnolent green haze carried on it the sound of lawnmowers and the scent of fresh-cut grass and flowers, In autumn, people in Auburn still burned leaves in the backyard while the town constable looked the other way, and the smoke drifted generally, mingling with the scent of ripe apples and chilling dark-earth harvest from the farmers' fields outside of town.
It was a town that prided itself on its rectitude. Able-bodied men worked and provided for their families. Those women who didn't stay home with their children worked in town and were considered unfortunate. There were four churches in Auburn—the Catholic St. Benedict's, the Anglican St. Michael's, and the Lutheran St. Martin's. The fourth, the Assembly of Christ's Holy Stripes, was a rogue fundamentalist sect founded by an ex-con and self-proclaimed "pastor" named Kelvin Cowell. The Holy Stripers, as the assembly was referred to in town, met in a converted industrial warehouse on the outskirts of Auburn for three-hour services Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, and their brand of Christianity was harsh and pitiless.
Mikey had lived in Auburn his entire life and felt he could account for every bruising minute of those seventeen years. He knew there was a world beyond the town because he'd read about it in books and magazines and on the Internet. He'd seen that world on television and in the movies as well. He knew it was a clean place, one where people like him didn't get beaten up nearly every day at school, or after school when the bullies, who roamed like packs of callow teenage jackals, had a freer range of territory in which to hunt him and more time to plan how best to torture him with the least chance of getting caught.
In the world beyond Auburn, people like Mikey didn't get slammed into lockers nearly every day until purple contusions bloomed on their chests and upper arms like pulpy grapes. They didn't get their heads forced into toilets that were then flushed, producing a terrifying sensation of drowning as the victim took in water and shit when he screamed—only to be pulled up brutally by the hair at the last minute, coughing and sputtering, to the sound of coarse, brutal adolescent male laughter. On good days it didn't happen twice, and on great days the toilet was flushed before the dunking.
By and large, there were two places where Mikey felt safe: in his bedroom and in his head.
His room was a walled fortress where he could be himself. His books were there—wall-to-wall bookcases full of paperback horror novels and books on demonology and witchcraft, some dating back to the 1950s and before. His passion for the supernatural was something that isolated him even further from his peers. If he had lived in another time and place, he would have known that an interest in horror fiction and horror movies was a time-honoured, and honourable, nerd trope, and all he would have needed was one friend with whom to share it. Auburn, however, was a hockey town. If you were a boy, you played sports. The overlapping circles of exclusion fanned outward from that core premise. He had his horror novels and his books on the occult, and he had his computer.
His mother had begun attending the Assembly of the Holy Stripes church three years before. Although a certain intuitive levelness kept Donna Childress from crossing the line that divided the yearning, questing soul in search of arbitrary boundaries in a world gone socially fluid from the true-blue fanatic, her conversion had become a source of enormous friction between herself and Mikey's more or less agnostic father. Larry Childress thought Kelvin Cowell was a fraud and a crook. When Donna had come home one Wednesday night in tears after Cowell had lectured her on the dangers of "being yoked to an unbeliever"—to wit, her husband—Larry had threatened to drive over to the church and break Cowell's legs. What ensued proved to be one of the worst fights of their marriage. Larry tried to forbid Donna from attending the church, but she refused. As a compromise, she agreed to tone down her religious rhetoric around the house. It was an uneasy détente, broken only once: the time Donna tried to throw out Mikey's books on the occult, and his computer. Although Larry Childress neither liked nor approved of Mikey's fascination with horror fiction and witchcraft, he was unwilling to cede any more ground to his wife's religious obsessions. It was one of the few times Mikey could remember that his father had intervened on his behalf against his mother's wishes.
In any case, they agreed on other things about him. As disappointed as his parents might have been about what they perceived as their only child's effeminacy and isolation from the world of his peers—and, in Donna's case, the source of fearful, unasked questions about her son's sexual orientation and its potential effect on whether or not they would eat the Bread of Life together in heaven or not—it had fortunately not occurred to either of his parents that their son's computer and Internet access were providing him with yet another refuge from the crushing brutality of the world in which both of them seemed to thrive. It was a world, after all, that they themselves had traversed with stolid, unremarkable aplomb in their own day.
The Internet was Mikey's window to the outside world, and a mirror of sorts against which he measured Auburn based on a series of assets and liabilities that always had the town coming up short. Someday, he thought, he would leave Auburn, or run away, or escape by means legitimate or otherwise.
The town wasn't without a special history that appealed to Mikey's esoteric fascinations. Auburn and, to a lesser degree, Milton and Campbellville were possessed of an unusual number of legends of the sort that are kept alive primarily by word of mouth from generation to generation of the town's youth. Mikey knew them all by heart. Occasionally the stories would be tied to individual people, none of whom, of course, were still living in the town—or even living. This made them harder to completely disavow than, say, the more generic urban legends that thrived elsewhere and which had been packaged and resold to the populace by Hollywood in any number of slasher films.
Auburn and Milton prided themselves on their own organic folklore. An urban anthropologist might have been interested in the fact that this tiny obscure tract of southern Ontario farmland, bordered by the hard granite cliffs and chasms of the Niagara Escarpment, could lay claim to its very own indigenous aggregation of dark fables—a commune of werewolves living in the hills, for instance, or vampires, or trolls, or a coven of witches—but that would presuppose that any urban anthropologist would ever even hear the stories. The townspeople of Auburn and Milton kept their devils to themselves the same way they kept everything else to themselves. But Mikey, like all the young people in town, had grown up with the stories. He had even found a couple of sites online that mentioned sightings of the witch coven, but beyond that the stories stayed within town limits.
Over in Milton—on Martin Street, for instance—was the red brick Victorian where old Mrs. Winfield had lived during the first half of the twentieth century. Her husband had vanished sometime during the 1920s. Although she was rumoured to have killed and eaten him, those were just stories. In the early 1970s, an eleven-year-old boy named Randy Murphy was found in her cellar on Halloween night. He had survived an attack by a wanted child predator after trick-or-treating, but the story he told about how he'd wound up in Mrs. Winfield's cellar—and about Mrs. Winfield herself—was much, much worse. The police ascribed his story of vast underground rooms beneath her house to shock, but when Mrs. Winfield moved away shortly after, the town released a collective sigh it hadn't realized it was suppressing.
In the 1980s, the house had been purchased by two men who kept to themselves. One of them was allegedly a writer, a strange fellow who only came out a night and seemed eager to make friends with the locals. His "gentleman friend," as the Miltonians referred to his companion, was rumoured to be a musician of some kind. He, likewise, was only ever seen after sundown and, even then, rarely. One stormy winter night, a seventeen-year-old boy named Vinnie Mancini, a cook at a local restaurant where the so-called writer often dined, vanished from Milton along with a redheaded waitress named Juicy.
After three nights, his hysterical mother began receiving phone calls late at night, purportedly from Vinnie, telling her that he had run away with Juicy. The police were unable to do much beyond listing him as a runaway since, by his mother's own account, he had called her and told her so, though she had begged him to investigate "those two faggots in that house on Martin Street," one of whom had been the object of her son's curiosity on the occasions that he'd come into the restaurant. While the police were sympathetic to Mrs. Mancini's plight (and privately didn't disagree with her characterization of them as "faggots"), they had been unable to establish a link between them and Vinnie's disappearance. Over time, the two men came to be thought of as victims of small-town prejudice, gossip, and a mother driven mad with grief. They eventually sold their house and slipped away from Milton one night like mist.
The following year, when Vinnie turned eighteen (it was assumed he had turned eighteen, and was alive and living somewhere), he even lost the designation of "runaway." But until his mother died two years later—diagnosis: pernicious anemia—she told everyone who would listen about the dead sound of Vinnie's voice on the telephone when he called her in the hours before dawn and told her about his new life, and about the nights she dreamed she saw his pale, hungry face floating in the darkness outside her window, his fingernails scratching the glass as he entreated her to let him in from the cold.
There were tales of a commune of outlaw bikers who lived somewhere above Glen Eden on a sprawling, derelict farm and, at night, under the full moon, they cast off their human form and became wolves. Again, people had seen the bikers occasionally when they came into town for provisions, but no one knew anyone who had seen them actually shapeshift. There were no such things as werewolves, though it made a great story late at night.
There were the stories of the coven of witches—real witches, nasty ones, like out of fairy tales, not what the townspeople referred to as "white-light tree-huggers"—who purportedly performed obscene rites beneath the full moon, rituals of blood and sacrifice and dark magic. Over the last fifty years there had been numerous alleged sightings in remote fields, usually by teenagers who had been out late, or drunks wandering home from a night of revelry. Of all the town's legends, these were the most persistent. For that reason they were given a little more credence by the very same people who would have scoffed at stories of vampires and werewolves and trolls.
Of course, if they existed, they weren't real witches, but then again, the town worthies said, these days it only seemed to matter what you thought you were. Anyone could call himself or herself a "witch," but it only made them a hippie, or a nutcase.