In Haunted Nights, editors Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton hand out a wealth of holiday treats–sixteen assorted pieces, with not one stale Milk Dud in the mix.
Seanan McGuire leads off with “With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfbane Seeds,” a tale as surprising as it is superbly atmospheric. Yes, it centers on a looming manse “that looked like it belonged in a gothic romance,” but this is no ordinary haunted house (for one, it hasn’t fallen into disrepair despite being abandoned for decades), and its ghost has a most unusual effect on those it encounters. There is also an intriguing American Gothic vibe, as the story reflects on the town’s ongoing relationship with the Holston house. Sounding themes of teenage angst, alienation and loneliness, and the desperate search for friendship, the narrative offers much more than standard fright fare; it’s arguably the best haunted-house story since Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter.”
Another autumn icon that’s strongly represented in Haunted Nights is the jack-o’-lantern. In fact, the anthology features two separate stories that focus on the folkloric character of Stingy Jack–Joanna Parypinski’s “Wick’s End” and Pat Cadigan’s “Jack” (co-editor Morton covered the same subject herself in 2012’s “The Legend of Halloween Jack“). While both pieces traverse similar ground, they follow distinctive paths, presenting markedly different tones and perspectives (Parypinski’s piece is narrated by Stingy Jack himself, Cadigan’s by a witchy equivalent of a beat cop determined to bust up the eponymous character’s con game). In their ultimate diversity, these two tales are emblematic of the overall anthology, which impresses with its variegated nature. Not just Halloween but a host of October holidays are highlighted here, from Devil’s Night to Dia de los Muertos, Seelenwoche to Nos Galan Gaeaf. The tales also range from the modern-day (such as S.P. Miskowski’s “We’re Never Iniviting Amber Again,” where an adult party gathering takes a ghoulish turn) to the historical (Elise Forier Edie’s “All Through the Night,” set in squalid old New York, whose Five Points appear to be the home of both bad sorts and Good Folk).
The anthology undoubtedly fulfills its titular promise with its inclusion of several nightmarish works that linger in the reader’s mind. Garth Nix’s incredibly creepy “The Seventeen-Year Itch” concerns a self-mutilated insane-asylum patient with a maddening urge to scratch at his own chest–a compulsion that also becomes unbearable to all those around him every seventeen years on Halloween night. In “Witch Hazel,” Jeffrey Ford lures readers into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, whose dark woods are perhaps plagued by an agent born of something much more malefic than Mother Nature. John Langan imports postmodernism into the October Country in “Lost in the Dark,” the title of a heralded film that disturbingly blurs the line between dark fantasy and documentary realism. With its gripping plot, unnerving setting (deep within an abandoned mine) and terrifying antagonist (“Bad Agatha”), Langan’s novella begs for its own filmic adaption. If not in the local multiplex, expect to find “Lost in the Dark” coming soon to various Best of the Year collections.
I have always been especially fond of Halloween science fiction, and the last story here, “The First Lunar Halloween” by John R. Little, earns a place alongside such esteemed predecessors such as Al Sarrantonio’s “Red Eve” and Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still.” Little’s post-planetary-disaster tale casts a slanted light on earthly holiday traditions, while staging its own irrefutably spooky celebration (where Aliens form a dreadful presence without ever emerging front and center). The story closes on a downbeat note, with the protagonist’s disavowal of Halloween, but the reader of Haunted Nights will be left expressing a diametrically-opposed sentiment. This amazing anthology, stocked with names both familiar and fresh, proves that the autumnal tale is anything but played out at this point. Here’s hoping that the Horror Writers Association puts out a casting call once again, and the Morton and Datlow Pandemonium Show returns with a whole new set of attractions next Halloween season.