The Rotten Pumpkin Man
The rule for keeping him away was clear—never suffer a jack-o’-lantern to spoil on Halloween. This little proviso seemed to do the trick, as there hadn’t been a sighting in our town for many years. To make the whole thing seem legitimate, so no one took us for a bunch of superstitious hicks, we made a holiday out of the whole thing—the Rotten Pumpkin Festival. Each Halloween eve, the town gathered up all of its decomposing jack-o’-lanterns, and then, to music and too much drink, we burned them.

Unfortunately, we might have been a little too hasty to disguise the real reason for the holiday behind so much fun and fire. If only we’d been a little bit more concerned about missing our yearly festival—even if it was to avoid the worst thunderstorm on record—there’d be a lot more people telling this story.

After the storm came and went, the entire town was left without power, but this only inspired what we thought would be the greatest Halloween of all time. That year, torches and the glowing grins of jack-o’-lanterns replaced our lost light. More bright-eyed pumpkins than ever before beamed from stoops, windowsills, and front yards.

Like so many of us, I gathered with friends at Victor Shim’s annual Halloween party. A huge fire roared from the mouth of his massive hearth, filling the spacious house with orange light, and what darkness survived the fire was shot through with too many glowing triangles and stretched, toothy grins to count. We were already knee-deep in our hokiest tradition, then going on its twentieth year—a storytelling contest. Naturally, almost all of the entries centered around our town’s dread mascot—The Rotten Pumpkin Man.

Tale after tale unfurled before the raging fire, each one careful to exploit the many myths surrounding his origin. My favorite of all described how the monster was once a man who’d been killed by a strange drifter, his internal organs left to liquify at the bottom of a huge, rotting jack-o’-lantern, the depths of his excavated skull the seat of a small candle. All the stories varied, except for the warning—never suffer a jack-o’-lantern to spoil on Halloween. Of course, the fact that we’d missed our burning ceremony only spiced the stories with an additional bit of fright.

I’d just returned from an alcohol-inspired nap from upstairs when I noticed the house had gone entirely silent, broken only by the sound of a knife sawing into a pumpkin. After the slicing abruptly ended, I heard the front door slam shut. I caught a glimpse of something huge stumbling off the front porch. That’s when I realized it wasn’t a gourd the knife had been cutting. The face of every partygoer had been butchered—dimly glowing holes had replaced their eyes and mouths, and within each crudely hollowed head, a single tallow candle burned. I ran into the streets, half mad, past rows of houses where human jack-o’-lanterns replaced pumpkins, each one grinning flickering orange light into our darkest Halloween.