By Gregory Lamberson
Dedicated to everyone who
Pre-ordered JOHNNY GRUESOME!
Originally, Roy Robbins at Bad Moon Books intended to ship the
Limited Edition hardcovers of my novel, Johnny Gruesome,
in early October ‘07—plenty of time for horror fans
in general, and zombie fanatics in particular, to devour its contents
like warm, dripping human flesh before Halloween.
As sometimes happens in the world of small press publishing, factors
beyond our control delayed the book until mid-October, then late
October, and now mid-late November.
That’s life (or death, Johnny might argue).
Neither Roy nor I take the postponement lightly. Johnny
Gruesome is my second novel, and the first novel
that Roy is publishing, and we’ve gone all-out to provide
you with what we feel is a spectacular package, with a cover and
interior illustrations by Zach McCain, a painted frontispiece
by Eric Mache’, and an introduction by Seriously Whacked
author Jeff Strand. We’ve invested a lot in this project
and we want you to enjoy the fruits of our labor as soon as possible.
To tide you over until Johnny rises from the grave and spills
massive quantities of blood in the snow, I wrote this short story
for the readers who pre-ordered the book, and to subscribers of
my newsletter, The Gruesome Gazette.
I’ll probably make it available to the general public on
my website as well, but I want you to know I created it with you
This tale serves much the same function as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s
Jungle Tales of Tarzan, and George
Lucas’s entire Star Wars prequel
trilogy: it paints a picture of Johnny Grissom’s youth,
filling in some general background info, and depicts an incident
central to the development of his personality.
“The Johnny Gruesome Halloween Special” does not contain
much dreaded (or hotly anticipated, depending on your point of
view) SPOILERS, but it does set up one of the grisly chapters
in the novel, serving as a second prologue.
I hope you enjoy the story and the novel.
Special thanks to Kelly Forbes for his outstanding artwork on
the first on-line Johnny Gruesome comic, which just won “Best
Comic Book” at the NYC Horror Film Festival. The story you’re
about to read basically sets up the chapter that Kelly adapted,
which is why I asked him to contribute the drawing which accompanies
this tale for your enjoyment (or distress). He gladly complied
even though I gave him ridiculously short notice.
Until you receive your numbered copy of the novel--
Happy Halloween, and STAY GRUESOME!
October 31st, 2007
“The Johnny Gruesome Halloween Special”
Johnny sat alone in the first row of the viewing room, his eyes
focused on his transparent reflection on the casket’s sleek
surface. Behind him he heard the muted voices of mourners who
had come to pay their respects to his mother: neighbors, his parents’
friends, his father’s co-workers. Hearing the pity in their
voices, he knew they were talking him, and the back of his neck
turned red. He had avoided their eyes in the when they offered
him their condolences in the reception area. Where had they been
when his mother needed them, during her final weeks at Lewton
Hospital? Too busy with their lives, he supposed. As long as he
remained sitting, and didn’t explore the spacious rooms
of the Lawson funeral home, they would leave him alone.
If only Eric’s parents had allowed him to come; then Johnny
would have some company. But the Carters thought they were better
than other people, and he knew they looked down on him. Johnny
had been hanging out with Eric for less than six months, but they
had formed a strong bond. Eric had dropped hints that his parents
didn’t want him to attend the funeral, so Johnny had been
prepared to brave it alone.
Now he stared hard at the coffin’s side, grateful that he
could no longer see his mother trapped inside it. No, not trapped
— packed like an artificial Christmas tree bound
for storage. Except Helen Grissom would never leave her grave.
After watching the color drain from her face during those awful
last weeks, it had been discomforting to see her in makeup again.
He had grown accustomed to her grayish pallor, and now she lay
there, stiff and hollow, her face resembling that of a department
store mannequin. Her eyelids fascinated him in a dreadful way
and he wondered with if Mr. Lawson, the funeral director, had
glued them shut or sewn them. Either way, he knew they would never
He looked up, startled. The man standing in the aisle beside him
offered a tight smile. Graying brown hair jutted up from his scalp
in a harsh crew cut, a roll of flab undulating beneath his square
jaw. The man clasped Johnny’s right shoulder with a firm
grip. “How are you, son?”
Johnny swallowed. Something about Father Webb intimidated him,
something besides the white collar around his thick neck. Father
Webb had stayed in pretty good shape following his tour as a marine,
and he cut a formidable figure even now that his body was turning
soft. But it was his voice that really unsettled Johnny: it reminded
him of the sound the sump pump in the basement of the Grissom
house made when rain fell late at night; a sound that caused him
to bolt up in bed and listen with rapt attention despite its familiarity.
At least Father Webb had visited his mother, who had taken comfort
from his attention.
“I’m okay, I guess.”
Father Webb continued to clasp his shoulder. “How old are
“That’s a nice suit you’re wearing.”
Johnny steeled his emotions. His mother had bought these clothes,
right down to his shiny shoes, just months earlier. She knew,
he thought. She knew she was dying and she never told me.
Never said goodbye. “Thanks.” He wiggled
his swelling toes within the confining leather.
“Your mother was a good woman. I’ll miss her gentle
humor at St. Luke’s.”
Johnny willed back tears; he did not want to cry in front of this
“Do you intend to continue your Sunday school lessons?”
A noncommittal shrug. “I don’t know.” He hoped
his quivering voice did not betray the lie. His father didn’t
attend church, and Eric and his parents were Methodists. Without
his mother dragging him out of the house every Sunday morning,
Johnny planned to sleep in instead. It was so hard to get up after
staying up all night watching movies…
“Well, I hope you do. If it’s a matter of getting
a ride, I’m sure we can find someone to give you a lift.
And remember, if you ever need someone to talk to, about anything
at all, you know where to find me.”
Johnny nodded in reply and Father Webb released his shoulder.
Johnny felt relief as the man returned to his congregation.
He didn’t even look inside the coffin, Johnny thought.
“Let’s have it, son.”
Johnny froze. Damn it!
Shifting his eyes sideways, he saw the store manager looking down
at him, one hand outstretched. Glasses. Vest. Bowtie. Nametag.
The man snapped his fingers twice. “Now.”
With an exasperated sigh, Johnny turned his back to the store
manager, who fumbled with the clasp on his backpack. Facing Eric,
Johnny saw exactly the dumbfounded expression he expected. He
felt the manager digging through the backpack’s contents,
the rough motion throwing him off balance. If he had come to the
department store alone he could have split as soon as the manager
addressed him: straight out the front doors, around the block,
under the Main Street Bridge, then home through the woods. He
could get just about anywhere on one side of town through those
woods. His mother had done everything she could to dissuade him
from utilizing the network of shortcuts, but Aunt Alicia was lax
with him, probably out of pity. He knew that Eric would hesitate
in such a scenario and get caught, and the Carters would give
Johnny up. Judging by the disapproval in Eric’s eyes, the
manager had discovered his loot.
“Turn around,” the manager said.
Johnny acquiesced, a defiant spark in his dark eyes.
The manager waved the shrink wrapped DVD at him. “What’s
the matter, kid? Don’t your parents give you an allowance?”
“My mother’s dead and my father spends all his money
on liquor,” Johnny said in a harsh tone.
The manager’s face paled; Johnny liked that. “I’m
“I have my own money.” He had been saving dollar coins
for as long as he could remember, to use for college someday.
“But your clerks won’t sell me that movie.”
Furrowing his brow, the manager focused his eyes on the DVD case.
A look of disgust spread across his features. The front of the
case displayed the rotten, grayed features of a dead woman, her
mouth open in a perpetual scream, reflected in the lens of a camera.
“I hardly think Cannibal Holocaust is appropriate
for someone your age.”
Or for any one else, I bet, Johnny imagined the man continuing
in his self righteous tone.
“I’m sorry, but I’ll have to call your father.”
“He’s working and can’t be bothered.”
The man appeared unconvinced. “Who takes care of you during
He withdrew a pen and a small pad from his shirt pocket and he
clicked the end of the pen. “Phone number, please.”
With his tear stricken face buried in his pillow, Johnny listened
to his father arguing with Aunt Alicia downstairs. His butt cheeks
stung where his father had belt-whipped him minutes earlier.
“Give the boy a break,” Alicia said. “Helen’s
only been dead four months.”
“Don’t tell me how to raise my son,” Charlie
said. Johnny heard the familiar hiss of a beer bottle opening.
“Then raise him. He needs your love and understanding
right now. Not your anger and not your belt.”
“You think it’s easy for me? I have to be a father
and a mother now. Work all day and come home to this.
It’s always something. I can’t let him get away with
this behavior. The boy’s got to learn right from wrong.
What do you think Helen would say about the way he’s acting?”
Rolling onto his back, Johnny stared up at the darkened ceiling
light fixture. Narrowing his eyes, he imagined it was the moon
waiting to show itself in the night sky. I’m never going
to cry again, he promised himself. And then he thought about
how he planned to get his hands on that Cannibal Holocaust
Despite his vow, he awoke in the middle of the night with tears
in his eyes.
The wind whipped Johnny’s dark hair as he stood on the sidewalk
outside St. Luke’s church, in the Red Hill town square.
Seven months had passed since his mother’s funeral; he’d
endured a birthday and started sixth grade. He cast a glance behind
him: on the far side of the park, yellow school busses filed along
Main Street, the excited screams of school children issuing from
half open windows. He lived less than a mile from the school,
and another half mile from the square, and most days he walked
to school and home again. Today he continued past the Green Forest
Cemetery, heading downtown. He couldn’t wait until he was
old enough to drive his own car. Five more long years…
He studied the church’s brick face and steeple. How often
had he heard those bells ring? He hadn’t set foot inside
since his mother’s death. Instead, he had passed time at
the creek, in the woods, and at the cemetery.
Anywhere but church.
Gazing at the double wooden doors, he stepped forward, mounted
the concrete steps, and grasped one of the long brass door handles.
The door swung open, the sun behind him casting his shadow into
the vestibule ahead. He followed the shadow inside, allowing the
door to swing shut. His shadow vanished with the sunlight and
he found himself alone in the silent stillness. Opening a second
set of doors, he peered inside St. Luke’s: at the far end
of the darkened aisle, candles burned on a shelf near the pulpit.
He moved forward, his sneakers scraping the carpet and his eyes
fixed on the life-sized statue of Jesus Christ crucified on the
far wall. He thought of the religious paraphernalia his mother
had used to decorate their upstairs hallway, which his father
had been unable to bring himself to remove. With minimal breathing
and his eyes darting from one side of the pews to the other, he
penetrated the gloomy interior. He raised his eyes toward the
stained glass windows above him, glowing with feint sunlight.
Somehow, the church felt smaller than it had the last time he’d
been there, even though he hadn’t grown much. Stopping near
the pulpit, he gazed at the confessional built into the wall on
his right side. He regretted that his first communion had been
the last event he had celebrated with both of his parents.
On the far side of the confessional, Father Webb exited the hallway
leading to the administrative offices.
“Hi, Father.” His voice squeaked and then echoed,
which embarrassed him even more.
Father Webb glided over to him, his long robe flowing into darkness.
“It’s good to see you. How have you been? I’ve
been meaning to stop in and see how you and your father are getting
Johnny glanced at the priest’s outstretched hand, then shook
it. The man’s flesh felt soft and oiled, like a woman’s.
“I ask your aunt about you all the time. Are she and your
uncle all packed?”
Johnny nodded. “They moved two days ago.” He missed
Aunt Alicia already.
“That’s right! I remember her telling me Tuesday was
the big day. Well, I wish them luck. There’s certainly more
work in North Carolina than there is in Western New York. But
I like to think we still have something to offer people right
here in God’s country. Don’t you?”
Johnny shrugged. “I guess so.”
“Alicia told me she’d persuaded you to stop by. I
understand you have a lot on your mind that you’d like to
discuss. Shall we begin with your confession?” He gestured
to the confessional.
Staring at it, Johnny shook his head. He had developed an extreme
dislike for confined spaces.
“I honestly think it will make you feel better.”
Johnny bit his lower lip. “Isn’t confession supposed
to be anonymous?”
“Anything we discuss will be between you, me, and the Lord.”
Johnny considered this. Hadn’t his mother trusted Father
Johnny closed the confessional door behind him, shutting out the
candle light. The space felt wider than he had feared and he lowered
himself onto the kneeler, his back to the chair reserved for the
aged and the disabled. The sweet aroma of the scented candles
failed to mask the smell of sweat that permeated the compartment
and he imagined the wooden walls perspiring. He discerned the
shape of a cross hanging above him on the partition separating
him from Father Webb. A wooden panel slid back and dull light
seeped through the exposed lattice, outlining the priest’s
Johnny cleared his throat. “Bless me, Father. I’ve
“Go ahead, my son. Tell me your troubles.”
“It’s been”— He made the calculation—“a
year since my last confession. Maybe longer.”
“I’ve done bad things--things that would make my mother
ashamed of me.”
“Such as--?” The priest’s voice seemed oddly
“I’ve stolen things: DVDs, CDs, candy. Things I don’t
even need. Right before my aunt and uncle moved, I found a switchblade
in my uncle’s army footlocker and I took it. I think I just
want to prove to myself that I can get away with things. And if
I get caught, I think I do it just to piss my father off.”
“Language, my son…”
“Sorry.” He paused to swallow. “I miss my mother
so bad. It hurts all the time.”
“I don’t understand why she had to die. She was a
good person. She believed in God and came to church every week.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways, son. Surely you’ve
heard me say that before? Ours is not to question why. Your mother’s
gone to a better place.”
Johnny stifled a sniffle. Any place seemed better than Red Hill.
“I wish I could be with her.”
Father Webb’s surprise hung in the air between then like
fog. “That’s no way to talk. I’m sure you don’t
really mean that. You have to be strong--for yourself and for
your father. He’s in pain, too.”
“I know that. He drinks all the time to make his pain go
away. But I can’t do that, can I? I wish he would talk to
me, but everything’s changed. Our lives stink.” His
chest heaved several times and finally the sobs came, his voice
cracking. “Why does it have to be like this?” Damn
it! Not here! Not now! Tears streamed down his cheeks. The
screen slid back over the lattice, enshrouding him in darkness.
Wiping his eyes, he stared at the solid black and wondered if
his confession had been rejected. Is that it?
He heard a door latch and felt a slight vibration, followed by
soft footsteps that still echoed. Taking a deep breath, he shifted
his gaze to the door. The footsteps stopped and his heart beat
faster. Even though he expected the door to open, he still jumped
when it did. Father Webb’s imposing frame filled the doorway,
silhouetted by the candles’ glow. Johnny’s instincts
told him to rise, but he did better than that—he sprang
up, flattening his back against the wall.
“It’s all right to feel pain, son. We all do, at one
time or another. Even me.” Father Webb’s voice lowered
to a whisper. “I understand what you’re going through.
Don’t be afraid. I feel your pain.”
Johnny’s heart hammered in his chest. This wasn’t
right. Father Webb didn’t belong in this compartment…
A black void filled his vision as the priest stepped forward;
only the man’s clerical collar gave Johnny a reference point.
Then he felt powerful hands on his shoulders and he recalled the
discomforting sensation he had felt when Father Webb had touched
him at his mother’s funeral. The confessional grew smaller
around him, tighter.
“Let me take the pain away.”
The white collar drew closer.
“I can make you feel better. Much better.”
Alarm bells rang in Johnny’s brain.
“Don’t worry. No one else will know. What happens
in here is just between us.”
And God? Johnny wondered. And then he heard another voice,
this one deep in his mind: Get out of there!
Feeling hot breath on his face, he shot his right hand forward,
aiming his pointer and index fingers at the center of the silhouetted
head before him, targeting where Father Webb’s eyeballs
belonged. His middle finger struck something soft and the priest
cried out. The sound caused Johnny to flinch as the collar rose.
Father Webb’s voice filled the confessional: “GOD
DAMN IT ALL!”
Johnny’s fear multiplied. The powerful man was sure to hurt
He darted forward, skewing his body sideways so it fit between
Father Webb and the door frame. As he emerged from the darkness
of the booth into the dim light of the church, his fingers clawed
at the edge of the door, which he slammed with all his strength.
He drove Father Webb back into the confessional, pinning his arm
between the door and its frame. The priest’s hand protruded
from the darkness like a disembodied appendage, fingers spastic
with pain. Johnny aimed his eyes in the direction of the vestibule
doors. The aisle appeared longer than it ever had before. Realizing
that Father Webb could force the confessional open as soon as
he applied leverage, he released the door and sprinted forward,
sneakers pounding the rug and footsteps echoing through the church.
He didn’t have to look over his shoulder to know that Father
Webb had escaped from the confessional. Panic drove his arms and
legs faster and he slammed into the vestibule doors.
For an instant he felt the doors resisting his weight and feared
that Father Webb had managed to lock them before entering Johnny’s
confessional compartment. Then the doors parted with a sudden
rush—as if pulled by someone standing on the other side--and
he leapt into the empty vestibule and threw himself at the front
doors. Sunlight filled his eyes, blinding him, and he felt cold,
fresh air on his face as he staggered outside. He tumbled down
the steps to the manicured front lawn, picked himself up, then
sprinted across the street and through the park, his back to the
He kneeled on the earth before his mother’s grave, rain
water soaking the knees of his jeans. The gravestone bore both
his parents’ names, with the date of his father’s
eventual death waiting to be engraved. He stared at the polished
stone, his chest rising and falling as he imagined what Father
Webb might have done to him.
Pervert, he thought. “How could you trust him?”
he demanded of his mother. “He wanted to touch
There was no response; not even a rustling of wind.
But his mother had spoken to him. He had heard her voice
clearly inside his head, warning him to flee the church. And he
could have sworn that someone had opened the inner church doors,
allowing him to escape.
He dug his into the dirt. “Tell me what to do!”
He supposed he’d just imagined that he had heard her; that
he’d only heard his own thoughts under extreme distress.
And if she had returned to warn him, she had abandoned him now.
He was all alone again.
His mind raced, a jumble of thoughts: I know I heard her…
He tried to touch me… Go to the police… Everyone
will know… Tell my father… They’ll all laugh
at me!... Get another whipping…
It didn’t take long for him to decide to keep the incident
to himself. He wouldn’t even tell Eric.
Johnny stopped in his tracks when he saw the two vehicles parked
in his driveway. The truck belonged to his father, but he didn’t
recognize the shiny black Lincoln. When he entered the two-story
house through the front door, his heart skipped a beat: Father
Webb sat on the living room sofa, chatting with his father, who
sat in his leather recliner. Both men turned their heads to look
“There you are,” Charlie said, rising. “I thought
you were going to miss dinner. Father Webb stopped by to see how
we’re getting along.”
Johnny stepped forward, anger rising within him along with fear.
How could Father Webb come here, to his home?
“I told him we’re still adjusting, but things are
getting better,” Charlie said. “Right?”
Johnny’s eyes locked onto Father Webb’s. He saw vague
amusement in them, mixed with menace. The man knew no shame.
“That’s good,” the priest said. “I’m
glad to hear it. Your sister told me Johnny was going to come
visit me, and when he didn’t, I thought it might be easier
for me to make a house call.”
Johnny felt his jaw tighten. “What happened to your eye?”
Father Webb raised one hand to his right eye, his fingers stopping
just short of touching it. Crimson filled the eye’s inner
corner. “Oh, this? I walked right into a thorn bush outside
the church. Can you believe that? I guess it’s time for
me to consider glasses.” He winked.
Glaring at the priest, Johnny heard his breath whistling through
his nostrils. “Fuck you.”
Father Webb’s expression cooled but his eyes burned with
“What did you just say?” Charlie said in an incredulous
Johnny faced his father, then turned back to the priest. “I
said, ‘Fuck you, Father Webb!’”
Charlie trembled with rage for a moment, then steamrolled toward
his son. “Why, you little--”
Johnny backed up, clenching his fists. He had been tempted to
strike back at his father for months. He would get in at least
one good shot but before Charlie flattened him.
Leaping from the sofa, Father Webb held Charlie back. “Charles,
no! Can’t you see the boy is distraught? He needs therapy,
not a beating!”
“Fuck you!” Spittle flew from Johnny’s
mouth and his face turned beat red. Struggling in Father Webb’s
arms, Charlie roared. Johnny spun on one heel and charged into
the hallway and up the stairs.
Slamming his bedroom door shut, Johnny turned the lock and pulled
the string dangling from the overhead light. He darted to his
CD player and powered it up, cranking Slipknot over the speakers,
drowning out the sound of fists pounding on the other side of
the door. He had never played music so loud before. Sliding one
hand beneath his mattress, he withdrew the narrow object he had
hidden there. Flopping onto the bed, he turned the slender object
over in his hands. He knew he’d have to deal with his father
before the night was over, but that was okay; they would both
cool off after dinner.
Gazing across the room, he focused on the action figures and assembled
models on the shelf above his TV. He pictured Leatherface chewing
through St. Luke’s vestibule doors with his bloodstained
chainsaw, wood splintering as sawdust spewed around him; he imagined
Freddy using the razor blades on his glove to carve an opening
in the confessional booth; and he fantasized about Michael Meyers
teaching Father Webb the meaning of silence.
I’ll keep your secret, he thought, triggering the
switchblade in his hand with absent minded detachment. But he
knew this much: he would never allow Father Webb to lay a hand
on him again. Later, he closed the knife and watched Cannibal