October: A Thirtieth Anniversary Retrospective

Al Sarrantonio is a revered scribe of Halloween-themed fiction, the author of assorted classic stories such as “Pumpkin Head” and “The Corn Dolly” (both collected in Toybox), as well as the tales and novels comprising the Orangefield Cycle. His 1990 novel October doesn’t seem to be as widely known, but it is no less rewarding a read.

Tellingly, Sarrantonio dedicates October to Charles L. Grant, the leading writer of quiet–style horror in the late 20th Century. Sarrantonio knows his precursors, and to no surprise also ventures into Bradbury Country here: the novel features a sinister encounter at a seedy midwestern carnival. The influence of Stephen King’s It (which is itself indebted to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes) can also be detected, not just in the figure of a deadly, dreadful clown, but also in the focus on the generational recurrence of evil in a small East Coast town.

October opens somewhat slowly; there’s not a lot of action in the early pages, outside of a flashback scene of a Halloween party that takes a tragic turn for a group of high schoolers. Such pacing is surely deliberate, designed to make the eruption of violence mid-book that much more shocking. The narrative defies expectations, offering surprise yet satisfying twists. As if the notion of Abe Lincoln’s likeness on a killing spree isn’t striking enough, the novel contains moments of Cronenberg-worthy body horror guaranteed to test the reader’s gag reflex: “The thing in his mouth scrambled held his tongue in its pincers, pulled itself back toward the back of his throat–”

Similar to his Orangefield Cycle, Sarrantonio’s novel engages in a personification of festival ritual. “Saman, the Celtic Lord of Death” is rooted in mythic misinterpretation (not to mention mispronunciation)–the Celts did not actually worship some dark deity when celebrating Samhain (sow-en, meaning “End of Summer”). At least in October, Sarrantonio provides an intriguing terrestrial explanation: the figure is an ancient, chthonian, body-snatching creature hellbent on spreading carnage and chaos (especially on October 31st, a day sacred to the monstrosity after the cringing Celts–in the author’s fictional reworking of history–elevated it to godhood). The so-called Lord of Death is given a fantastic yet plausible backstory in October, and the uncanny creature hailed as such makes for a harrowing adversary here. Scenes late in the novel presented in Saman’s own, puppet-mastering viewpoint are the stuff of pure horror.

This proves to be a finely-plotted novel, with the disparate characters introduced in the early chapters later crossing paths in frightful ways. Tension mounts as the chapters, and their datelining titles, move ominously toward month’s end (the book builds to a bloody and fiery climax on Halloween night). October is also noteworthy for its well-established setting–the Hudson Valley community of New Polk, “the province of apple orchards and roadside stands.” Sarrantonio creates an even stronger sense of time, of seasonal transition: “Autumn was the bittersweet season, the beautiful, tender passing of the year from life toward death, from knowability to unknowability.” The darkening events of the narrative reflect natural earthly cycle, where bounty yields to barrenness:

Here, in the nightshade of these bare branches, autumn had already passed to winter. Dead apples. The ground was carpeted in unharvested fruit, saturated with the sharp, sick smell of rot. Insects moved into fruit corpses,, drilled holes into paling red skins. Pulp turned from crisp white to soft mealiness. Brown, the color of decay.

Within the the world of the novel, a central character (Eileen Connel) is the author of a book, Season of Witches, that has yet to get the recognition it richly deserves. The same no doubt holds true for October itself, Sarrantonio’s neglected masterpiece of autumnal terror.

 

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