"The Bone Man" by Frederic S. Durbin

image Frederic S. Durbin, whose story “The Bone Man” appears in the December 2007 issue of F&SF, said in an interview that his story tells the story of Conlin, a hit man who "rediscovers" the true spirit of Hallowe’en.

"On his way back to Chicago from a hit in tiny Enfield, Illinois, Conlin turns off the interstate for lunch and wanders into a small town among the fields and woods—a town that isn’t on his map," Durbin said. "He quickly discovers that he’s arrived on the day of the annual Hallowe’en parade, apparently a major event for this community; and he is intrigued by references to someone called ‘the Bone Man,’ a dancing skeleton that shows up every year as a kind of Grand Master of the parade."

Conlin’s curiosity is piqued by the locals’ apparent combination of dread and reverence for this figure, and especially by photos he’s shown: photos too old to be digital hoaxes, which indeed seem to depict an animated skeleton, Durbin said. "As he watches the town’s preparations for the evening, Conlin is drawn back into his childhood memories of the season and the sinister holiday for which he’s always had an affinity," he said. "Of course, Conlin, in the midst of the dark revelry, meets the Bone Man; and the specter is very real; and the encounter leaves Conlin forever changed (ominous chuckle)."

The story is rooted in Durbin’s love of Hallowe’en, he said. "In the autumn of 2005, I was going through a difficult time as my parents faced the serious problems of old age; I was between major writing projects and feeling out of sorts. A friend suggested I write a Hallowe’en story to get myself back into the rhythm of producing something. I tried it, and ‘The Bone Man’ is what resulted," Durbin said. "My mom passed away when I’d reached the middle of the first draft. That was in late October, and I’ll never forget the Hallowe’en of that year, how it felt. So for me this story will always have associations of grief, loss, and a sense of unreality or disconnectedness."

Durbin’s mental state that particular year added something to the story that wouldn’t have been there at any other time—a sort of mournful nostalgia that’s alight with the bright, eerie images and feelings we recall from our childhood Hallowe’ens, he said. "There’s an unspoken sense of yearning in the story, a longing to go back, to crawl inside the warm, inviting dream—which is, I’d say, a large part of our enjoyment of Hallowe’en," Durbin said. "I’m talking about all of us, kids and adults, anyone who loves the holiday. We’re groping and grasping after a sense of shivery wonder that’s fluttering in the shadows just beyond our workaday lives. We glimpse it now and then. We just want to get one hand on it for a few minutes on the night of jack-o’-lanterns. That’s what all our decorating and pumpkin-carving is for; we’re setting up the moment, hoping that squeaky inner trapdoor will open into the past, the unseen, the half-dreamed…and raise the hair on our scalps."

Conlin’s a professional killer, but of course Durbin had no way of knowing what really leads a person into that profession or what his mental landscape is like, so he supposed that a hit man is very much like a writer: a being whose nature is to observe, minutely observe every detail of what’s happening around him. "The success and survival of writers and hit men depends on that ability. That’s combined in Conlin with a complete absence of any moral sense—which liberates him. He can do what other people can’t do because he’s not afraid of any consequences," Durbin said. "One of my close friends is an atheist, and a lot of what I understand of his worldview went into Conlin. (Yes, I apologized to my friend for turning him into a cold-blooded killer.) Conlin thinks of Hallowe’en as the one honest holiday, because it comes with no hypocrisy; it acknowledges the universality of death, which he sees as the one truth in life."

To get the details right in the story, Durbin had to do some window shopping. "I had to go ‘shopping’ on-line for Conlin’s gun," he said. "That was fun, but it was a big responsibility, because I know you have to get the details of things like that exactly right. Mr. Van Gelder (the editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction) was very conscientious in asking me about it and double-checking the source I’d used. He also had me look up the kind of car Conlin drives, to make sure it really does have the speedometer with a needle that I wrote about, not a digital speedometer. I was able to find both a description and a photo of the dash board. Ah, the wonders of the Internet!"

As an homage, Durbin borrowed some scenery and atmosphere from Sauk City, Wisconsin for the story. "My first novel, Dragonfly, was published by Arkham House. A couple years ago I decided to visit Arkham House, and I drove through Sauk City, where it’s located," he said. "I had to ask directions at the local post office. In ‘The Bone Man,’ some of the geography of the town is cut-and-pasted from Sauk City. Arkham House really is on Lueders Road, which runs along the far edge of town; there really is a picturesque cemetery (where in real life August Derleth is buried); and at the end of Arkham House’s wooded driveway is a sign saying ‘Place of Hawks,’ [which became] ‘Place of Crows’ for the story."

Durbin reports that his story “Shadowbender” is slated to appear in the next issue of Ozment’s House of Twilight, and that he’s sold a story entitled "World’s End" to Black Gate. His agent is currently shopping his young-adult novel, The Witching Wild, and forthcoming in April of next year is a young-adult fantasy novelette which will appear as a four-part serial in Cricket Magazine.

"The Bone Man" appears in the December 2007 issue of F&SF, which is on sale now.