A Bonus Tale for a Blessed Yule: “The Ritual of Pumpkin Jack” by Scott J. Couturier

We interrupt our winter hibernation to share with you a special tale to accompany your Winter Solstice and Yule: “The Ritual of Pumpkin Jack” by Scott J. Couturier.

A Bonus Tale for a Blessed Yule: “The Ritual of Pumpkin Jack” by Scott J. Couturier
Scott J. Couturier, author of "The Ritual of Pumpkin Jack”

A happy Winter Solstice and blessed Yule to all of you readers out there.

Given that this is the longest night of the year (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), the Weird Fiction Quarterly team wanted to share with you a tale to keep you company in the long dark tonight. We are pleased to share one of Scott J. Couturier’s tales from our Fall & Halloween ’23 release: “The Ritual of Pumpkin Jack”.

So, pull up a comfy chair, pour yourself a warm drink, and snuggle under some blankets with this story, and experience another dark night on all of our calendars…

The Ritual of Pumpkin Jack

By Scott J. Couturier

Five of us carry it into the fallow cornfield.

We all contributed something to the outfit. An oversize plaid jacket, big black work boots with holes in each toe, a battered straw hat, moth-eaten cargo pants, rubber gardener’s gloves for each hand. For the head—what could be more fitting than a pumpkin? Bob carved it with a merry grin, even sticking a stray bit of hay between the zig-zag teeth.

Jill trudges behind, carrying the violin cases. Devil’s Night, so it’s called here in Michigan: the night before Halloween. A time for mischief, disorder, tricks-without-treats. But, our sacred purpose transcends the adolescent frivolity of mere egging or toilet-papering. Tonight only, we can perform the Ritual of Pumpkin Jack.

We reach the empty cross-pole, rising stark in the darkness. The air smells of wet soil and coming frost. Propping up the scarecrow, we each tune our respective instruments. Following a short atonal warm-up, we improvise an eerie melody, tempo unwieldy and strange. Strains of sawing violin blend with tambor’s heart-like whump into a primeval, unconscious rhythm.

Those are my boots on its feet. We all had to give something; it’s in the rules. I play my violin with furious energy, bow a blur under the moon’s waning crescent. Together, we weave a sinuous circle around the scarecrow’s slumped form, instruments issuing a fervid witch’s air.

It is the hour of ding-dong-ditch, of pranks played with mean-spirited frankness. As kids we all used to sneak out together, go break into farmer Hadley’s barn and jump in the hay, once even “tipping” some of his cows. Back then, our parents were the ones who made the scarecrow. After they vanished into the fields that year, we all joked about how they were off getting drunk. Not until we came of age were we told about the ritual—and its debt.

We circling musicians become a blur. My ears ring with screeching strings, the wail of a mounting danse macabre. Just as sweat starts breaking on my brow, I see the first shudder of life from the lifeless thing. The pumpkin-head lolls backward, gloved fingers convulsing; we all gasp as the scarecrow’s legs jerk. It rises to its full height, carven face a-grin. Ever-more-frantic, we evoke our eldritch tune.

How those clunky boots can dance! Around and around the pole, herky-jerky, puffs of straw bursting from its seams: the scarecrow whirls and capers widdershins, each movement accentuated by uncanny twitches. At music’s crescendo the hat and pumpkin fall away, revealing Steven’s bloated, death-pale face. I note the cut across his throat, achieved with a scythe; we all had to give something. His sacrifice came at a drawn straw’s whim.

Finally it writhes up the pole, affixing itself. We wind down our playing, and Bob sits on my shoulders, reverently replacing jack-o’-lantern and hat.

The crops will do well, just like twenty years ago.

That night, my father never came back.

And in twenty years, our children will repeat the Ritual of Pumpkin Jack.

And as is our custom here at WFQ, let’s meet tonight’s author.

Scott J. Couturier is a poet and prose writer of the weird, liminal, and darkly fantastic. He is the drummer/percussionist/vocalist for the band Nefarious Foodie (with his partner Shayne Keen), and a full-time editor with Mission Point Press, a hybrid publisher based in northern Michigan. His work has appeared in numerous venues, including The Audient Void, Weirdbook, S. T. Joshi’s Spectral Realms, Space and Time Magazine, Eternal Haunted Summer, and more. In his so-called spare time he enjoys gardening, reading, spending time with cats, hiking, and making and/or listening to music.

In addition to all of that above, Scott is also a valued member of the WFQ production team, editing the stories that come into our submission bin. He is a key element in the process that results in new WFQ releases, and is currently hard at work on getting the Winter ’24 issue whipped into proper shape for our late January release.

WFQ: Why do you write weird fiction and when did you start?

When I was a kid, I intended to be a high fantasy author, and I grew up devouring Dragonlance books by the dozens. My primary influences carried over from those early days are Tolkien and Ursula le Guin. Later on, I would discover Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle, and embark on a years-long exploration of a genre I didn’t even know existed when I was younger. For the last decade-plus, I’ve persisted on a comprehensive exploration of weird fiction in all its idioms, discovering in the process a form of fantastical writing that fits my syncretic temperament. Weird fiction exists at the crossroads of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and metaphysics; its aims are numinous, its ultimate goal awe in proportion to dread, repugnance, and horror. As such, I find myself temperamentally suited to this rather esoteric branch of the speculative. I first self-published a series of weird-influenced fantasy novels from 2014-2017, but began writing short weird fiction and weird poetry in 2017, also starting to submit to magazine, journals, and anthologies at this time.

WFQ: Who are the literary inspirations for your contributions?

Some of my biggest influences within the genre are Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore, William Hope Hodgson, Guy de Maupassant, Ambrose Bierce, M. R. James, Thomas Ligotti, and Arthur Machen. Specifically with my submissions to WFQ, I’ve tried to imply the most within the least space, something my love of James’ writing has specifically helped with. I always appreciate when devastating effects can be achieved with minimal expression.

WFQ: What do you like most about the 500-word format we use? What do you find most challenging with it?

It makes you write to the very best of your ability. A first, I doubted whether I could pull it off; now, my brain keeps churning out ideas for new flash fictions. The word limit gives the writer a defined space in which to evoke, much like a magician’s circumscribing circle. Ideally, the demands of the limitation make for a better story; the form itself becomes an inspiration, and every time you write another 500-word narrative with a middle, beginning, and end, it feels a little easier. I think my stories overall have gotten better since the first Winter issue in 2022. Working this way oils the faculties and forces you to tell just what needs to be told, which is excellent practice for writing longform as well.

WFQ: Which theme would you choose to guide a future WFQ installment?

I would love to oversee an issue dedicated exclusively to Folk Horror at some point.

WFQ: Where else can we read more of your work?

My collection of weird fiction, The Box, is available from Hybrid Sequence Media, while my collection of speculative seasonal verse, I Awaken In October: Poems of Folk Horror and Halloween, is available from Jackanapes Press and fully illustrated by Dan Sauer. Otherwise, some of the venues mentioned above are a good place to start.

I also have an author page on Facebook, and a blog.

We hope you enjoyed tonight's tale. If you want to read more of Scott's flash fiction, you can find more in any of our previous editions of Weird Fiction Quarterly and on his Goodreads author page.

(And stay tuned for more holiday surprises...)

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