Lying where it fell outside the elementary-school door, the worksheet looked juvenile enough — it was crossed by even, far-apart lines (designed for pre-cursive printing) and bordered by smiling spiders. One of the spiders had been scribbled over with an orange crayon, which added just enough color to give the paper an authentic Halloween look. The other spider was left naked: black and white.
The words on the page were what grabbed me. Instructed only to “write a Halloween story,” young author Kevin K. had printed, in blunt number two pencil, a gripping masterpiece of brevity and horror:
“One there was a Vampaimer that came to poelpes houses and there was a littel boy his mom tuun off the light but the vampamer came in his room he took the littel boy haet. The vampame went to the next the littel girl got into a pot of fire the Vampamer lagh Ha Ha Ha the girl died.”
What a find for a literary critic! In our electronic age, such breathtaking, Joycean creativity is seldom seen in handwritten manuscript form. I was instantly impressed with Kevin’s choice of a stock Halloween character, the vampire, to be his villain (or hero?), and how he subverted the obviousness of this choice by consistently altering the spelling. How fresh a familiar figure seems when our expectations are challenged! What does the added letter “M” do to our fear? And how do we cope with the shifting reality of “Vampaimer / vampamer / vampame / Vampamer”?
This, of course, is only the most basic of Kevin’s innovations. The scene in which the “littel boy” (a figure of the author?) is abandoned by his mother is a heart-wrenching echo of the universal experience of childhood. The mother knows nothing of the threat. The boy does not cry out. The Vampaimer is not held at bay. He enters, welcomed by the darkness, bringing, perhaps, enlightenment. “He took the littel boy haet,” Kevin writes, using an Old English, Beowulfian vowel combination to invoke his story’s profoundly traditional roots. Is it an accident that “haet” is an anagram of “heat”? It is, in fact, a clue to the climax of the story, grim foreshadowing hidden in an enigmatic sentence. We are left wondering what exactly the vampamer did to the littel boy — and as Kevin knows, the soul of terror lies in the unknown.
The story’s pacing as it builds to its climax is flawless. Kevin’s transitional sentence, “The vampame went to the next,” dangles like an inhaled breath cut off before it can manifest itself as a scream. Even the word “vampamer” has been truncated, almost carelessly (but with what care!), by a mere letter and yet by an entire syllable. At the eleventh hour, Kevin introduces a new character — or is it an old one? Is the littel girl just the littel boy’s mom, seen through different eyes? Or is it the littel boy himself, emasculated by his encounter with fear? (What exactly has the vampame done to the boy he “took haet”?) The littel girl, whatever her origin, does not wait to be acted upon. She “[gets] into a pot of fire” under her own terrible agency, thereby embracing illumination and reversing the initial act of the anti-Promethean mother who tried to extinguish the light.
The stark, existential ending of Kevin’s story is shocking, even haunting, in its cruelty. “The Vampamer lagh Ha Ha Ha the girl died.” There is no rescue for the girl. We have not yet learned to love her when she is stolen from us. The capital letters spike violently into space, towering over a chaotic, unpunctuated world.
Kevin K’s work is a prose poem of disturbing, exhilarating insight. No other Halloween coming-of-age tale has ever explored such explosively iconoclastic territory. My attempts to track down the author have been unsuccessful. For weeks I sat outside the school each afternoon, awaiting the final bell, but none of the children who poured through the doors bore any visible mark of genius, and the parents I questioned were brusque and unhelpful. The fliers I posted on the playground (“Don’t hide from your genius, Kevin K.! Let me understand you!” followed by my contact information) were torn down within hours — by the reclusive author himself? A jealous classmate? So I can do nothing but look forward to reading more, and hope that this exciting young writer drops another worksheet soon.