The Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard (words & art)
In this wonderfully disturbing collection of five short horror stories in a 340-page book, Abby Howard takes us on five very different journeys. The Crossroads at Midnight is a near-perfect collection of tales, with flowing artwork that makes the horrific quite surprising when it makes its appearance. In the first story, “The Girl In the Fields,” we meet a teenager — about fifteen-years-old — who is misunderstood by their parents. They call their daughter by their given name — Francine. However, Francine insists on being called Frankie. Her less-than-progressive parents seem to be always ready to pick a fight with Frankie, and they are so intrusive as to read private information off of Frankie’s computer. Frankie does not back down from these fights, but does retreat to the backyard to lean against the fence crying. She is interrupted by a kind voice coming from the other side of the fence, a voice that invites friendship, which is very much welcomed by Frankie who lives in a small town consisting of people who, we are led to believe, are just as conservative as their parents. All Frankie can see of this other person — Clara — is one bulging eye through a hole in the fence. They both seem desperate for friendship and kindness. However, this new friend does not want to be seen and quickly hides when Frankie looks over the top of the fence. The more Frankie’s parents cannot deal with their sexuality, the more Frankie seeks solace in this new friendship. Of course, this is a horror story, and being warned to stay on your side of the fence is something a lead character in a horror story will never listen to. Eventually, curiosity gets the better of promises and good common sense. Frankie eventually finds out what is on the other side of the fence, but it is not what they, or what the reader, could ever anticipate. The irony of the story is built on boundaries: Just as Frankie wants their parents not to cross their private boundaries, so too does this new friend want their boundaries respected, in this case a physical boundary in the form of the fence. Curiosity and crossing boundaries seem to bring grief to the curious in each situation. And the horror in this story is quite disturbing. I found myself flipping pages quickly to find out what would ultimately happen. I wondered just how dark the story would get. What I discovered in this story was the reminder that human beings have the most to fear from other human beings.
In the second story, a college student finds and brings home to her apartment one “Mattress, Used,” as the title of the story makes clear. Christina seems willing enough to ignore the giant stain on one side. We, and her roommate back at the apartment, are a bit horrified by the disgusting idea of sleeping on a mattress that has been left out on a city sidewalk. Unable to afford a bed, Christina has been sleeping on a pile of blankets and sheets. Final exams are underway, and stress is high for both Christina and her roommate, so the idea of finally sleeping on a real mattress greatly appeals to her. But at night, the mattress becomes a dark force that will bring the horrific into this young woman’s life. To avoid spoilers, I hesitate to describe with any more detail how exactly this horror manifests itself, but Christina’s life is permanently changed and gets worse day by day, and before long she finds herself waking up in a hospital. What happened to her? And is there more to come of this horror after she leaves the hospital? I leave you to read this story to find the answers to these questions, but you’ll have a little trouble sleeping comfortably on your own mattress after reading this story. At the very least, you might find yourself wanting to invest in a new one for a better night’s sleep.
In “The Boy from the Sea,” young Nia is playing in the sand when she is approached by a boy named Gregory who is constantly dripping wet, even after standing for a while outside of the water. Nia is sad because she has trouble making friends, and her older sister, much more the extrovert, makes friends easily. On this vacation with their father, Nia is hungry for friendship, a theme that runs through several of these stories. So, when Gregory approaches and even shows her some magic with water from the sea, Nia is overjoyed. The story turns ominous when the slightly creepy-looking Gregory tells the willing Nia to meet him at the shore by the water when the moon rises. Nia’s sister witnesses their meeting as she watches them from the waterfront house and realizes the danger Nia is in. She then tries to keep Nia safe by getting their father to take them away from the beach for the day by going to a carnival. She also tries to keep Nia safe by staying up every night to keep an eye on her. But these two girls cannot avoid trouble. After this “trouble,” the story takes a jump in time and we find out what happened more fully only in these more recent times. Nia, as an adult, must seek out answers years later. This oceanfront mystery has excellent suspense and is perhaps the most gripping of these five stories as we worry about these young siblings.
Mary-Anne is the main character of “Our Lake Monster,” a story about a once financially-secure family fallen on hard times. They used to make money, as Mary-Anne tells her younger brother, from traveling with their “monster” and getting people to pay to see it. Now, in their barren house on the edge of a lake, they catch only glimpses of the monster in the water. Mary-Anne loves their monster and has fond memories of it from when she was a little girl traveling with it and her family. She regales her little brother with fascinating stories of the monster, whom Mary-Anne regards as a sweet, misunderstood family pet. When the father comes home to announce that University scientists want to purchase the monster, Mary-Anne is distraught. Mary-Anne still believes in the monster, and she’s willing to put her life on the line to show just how harmless it really is.
The final story, “Kindred Spirits,” like “The Girl in the Fields” and “The Boy from the Sea,” is about loneliness, isolation, and longing for friendship. In this tale, we meet an older woman, Norah, who once worked in the post office before retiring, has never married or had kids, and has no friends. She is surprised by a knock on the door one night, and she is shocked to meet a bog body who wants nothing more than company. The bog body is a woman who can communicate only by tapping once for “yes” and twice for “no.” Norah tells her life story to this bog body. The next night, the bog body brings two other female bog bodies, and Norah invites them all into her home. Norah, during the day, eventually decides to do some research and solve the mystery of the three women who disappeared from this small town. Norah meets an historian of local events, and she seeks out answers to her questions. But the real question is, “What do the bog bodies want other than company?” Norah, you’ll be pleased to know, finds out the answers to all these questions, and her response is a surprising one that ends the collection on a horrifically comforting note. This was my favorite story of the collection because of the insight it gives into this woman’s situation in life, her isolation, her lack of friends. What is worse, complete isolation or the company of three dead women?
This is clearly a five-star collection of excellent storytelling in which the everyday slowly turns sideways into the horrific, and Abby Howard’s artwork is stunning, able to depict the mundane and the fantastic equally well. I highly recommend The Crossroads at Midnight.