Last Christmas, some teenage punks stole our spotlight from the front yard. We needed the spotlight to shine on the Christmas decorations that didn’t have their own intrinsic lighting. It’s pretty difficult to explain to a young son why someone would do something like that. Moreover, it’s really difficult to explain and not use bad words. Well, at least they weren’t as bad as the teenagers in Ed McBain’s story “Monsters.”
It’s Halloween and long after the little kiddies and the middle schoolers have gone home to count their loot, a couple of teenagers show up to the house of our nameless narrator. He’s a sixty-eight-year-old widower and, when he opens the door, he sees the two boys “wearing identical green Frankenstein masks and dark jackets over blue jeans and high-topped sneakers.” McBain’s story was published in 1994 but I couldn’t escape the images of the two shooters from Columbine as I read this story back in 2002 and, again, yesterday. It’s not a far stretch to think those thoughts because one of the Franks pulls out a switchblade. With the elderly gentleman scared to death, they rob him. He’s okay with money and other things being taken but they steal his dead wife’s precious things. For that, he doesn’t’ forgive.
The two Franks even take the jelly beans and fruit—pears and apples—from the bowl near the front door. They stuff the candy into their pockets and raise the masks just enough to chop the fruit. Laughing, the last thing the two Franks say is “See you next year.”
The gentleman calls the cops but they’re bored and never follow up. The gentleman buys a gun but doesn’t think he’ll be able to look another human—even ones as monstrous as the two Franks—and pull the trigger. Still, he’s ready. He won’t let it happen again.
Sure enough, they return the following year. This time, they have a gun, too. The two Franks brazenly use their names—Tommy and Frankie—and haul so much stuff from the gentleman’s house that it takes them three trips. Finally, before they leave, the gentleman pulls out his gun. They laugh. From Frankie, this: “Blow him away, Tommy,” he said softly. The gentleman whirls and is stuck in the head. He falls, gasping.
Tommy and Frankie guffaw yet again. “See you next year,” they say. They take the man’s pistol and stuff their pockets again with fruit and jelly beans.
And then it happens.
(Don’t want to give away the ending but an astute reader might see it coming.)
Ironically, this was the first McBain story I had ever read. Back in 2002, I had a vague notion of who McBain was but that was all. Now, after reading Cop Hater, I can see the best traits of McBain’s writing style here in this nasty, brutish short story: great pulp fiction verbs and a quick, no-nonsense delivery.
If you’ve read my review of Cornelia Reed’s award-winning story “Hungry Enough,” you’ll know I love how the meanings of titles can change after you’ve read a particular story. As the lead-off story of the anthology Murder for Halloween, “Monsters” evokes certain images in your mind, especially considering it’s tied with Halloween. We usually think of the monsters from the old Universal films: Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Wolf Man. Modern readers might think of Freddie, Jason, or that weird guy from the Saw movies. Here, the term monster is meant for the two teenagers. Surely, their actions make them monsters, right? Sure, not as bad as the punks who stole my spotlight but that’s just a difference in degree, not kind.
But the end of the story makes you wonder about the elderly gentleman as well. Is he the hero? Or is, he, too, a monster? That’s the beauty of the title: you can make up your own mind.
“Monsters,” by Ed McBain, published in Murder for Halloween: Tales of Suspense, edited by Michele Slung and Roland Hartman (The Mysterious Press), 1994.