The year 2020 marks the twentieth anniversary of the amazing Cemetery Dance anthology October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween. This subtitle says it all, as the book forms a treasure trove of holiday-themed writing, clocking in at a whopping 650 pages. Editors Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish strike a fine balance between original offerings and classic reprints (the volume features twenty-one fictional tales, plus one poem). Like the assorted sweets heaped inside a trick-or-treater’s candy bag, the table of contents brims with brand-name greats and the less well-known (but no less enjoyable).
October Dreams gives rise to tales covering the various aspects popularly associated with the holiday. There are tales of pumpkin carving: the graphic grotesquerie of Dean Koontz’s “The Black Pumpkin,” the more restrained yet extremely disturbing art of Charles L. Grant’s “Eyes.” Trick-or-treating stories galore, involving gruesome comeuppance in F. Paul Wilson’s visceral “Buckets,” and terrible revelation in Jack Ketchum’s gut-punching “Gone.” Old, dark houses loom throughout, from the shadowed abode in Richard Laymon’s shocker “Boo” to the utterly haunting structure in Tim Lebbon’s “Pay the Ghost.” Witches get their kicks from ill-treated children, whimsically in Gahan Wilson’s “Yesterday’s Witch,” and much more wickedly in creep-meister Ramsey Campbell’s “The Trick.” Self-reflexive tales take the telling of spook stories as their very subject, in Lewis Shiner’s ouroboros of an October narrative, “The Circle,” and Peter Straub’s foray into Faulknerian Southern Gothic in the novella “Pork Pie Hat.” The selections run the gamut from quiet realism (Ray Bradbury’s subtle yet unsettling “Heavy Set”) to fantastic flights of Lovecraftian terror (or descents, in the case of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s sublimely-titled “A Redress for Andromeda”).
The fictional narratives are greatly variegated in October Dreams, but the book adds even more into the mix with its inclusion of nonfiction pieces. Paula Guran’s “A Short History of Halloween” teems with information, offering plenty of savory tidbits in its baker’s-dozen-worth of pages. In “First of All, It Was October,” Gary A. Braunbeck engages in a broad survey of Halloween -themed/-related movies. Towards the volume’s end, Stefan Dziemianowicz’s “Trick-or-Read: A Reader’s Guide to Halloween Fiction” assures that there are further narrative neighborhoods to venture through.
But without a doubt, the most unexpected treat in October Dreams is the “My Favorite Halloween Memory” feature. These slices of personal memoir prove just as engaging and atmospheric as the fictional tales bracketing them. They remind the reader why Halloween is so beloved, and provide insight on how the narrators developed into writers–whether out of nostalgic hope of recapturing the delightful frights of childhood, or in the determination to surpass them.
Somewhat surprisingly, Ray Bradbury–the “October Dreamer Extraordinaire” to whom the anthology is dedicated–shares a sad rather than favorite Halloween memory (recounting his loss of holiday spirit following the death of his friend Federico Fellini on October 31st). At the start of the piece, Bradbury writes, “I often wonder why people wander around shouting to one another, ‘Happy Halloween!’ It is not supposed to be happy. We celebrate it with a certain amount of fervor and excitement, but at its core it is about those who have gone on ahead of us.” Looking back through the anthology today, I am sadly reminded of just how many of the writers (Bradbury included) gathered within the book have passed away in the twenty years since its publication. From the vantage point of 2020, October Dreams constitutes not just a celebration of Halloween; it forms a memorial to genre giants laid low. It also reinforces the function and import of Halloween horror: as the season turns dark and cold, we briefly make friends with death, that relentless predator who otherwise stalks us every moment of our lives.
After a gap of too many years, Cemetery Dance finally released a wonderful follow-up volume, October Dreams II. Two decades later, though, the first anthology remains the benchmark of Halloween writing, a book that has aged with tremendous grace. October dreams might typically turn nightmarish, but this collection affirms that they can be happily revisited.