Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 30th

[For the October 29th highlight, click here.]

 

October 30th

The penultimate chapter of Zelazny’s novel clarifies the parameters of the Game and establishes the stakes for the players. Snuff explains: “Those of us who remain will gather atop the hill at midnight. We will bring kindling, and we will cooperate in the building of a big fire. It will serve as illumination, and into it will be cast all the bones, herbs, and other ingredients we have been preparing all month to give ourselves an edge to confound our enemies.” The participants will encircle “the Gateway–which we have already determined to be the stone bearing the inscription.” The Opening and Closing Wands will be wielded. Things could get physical, and “psychic attacks may be shot back and forth. Disasters may follow. Players may fall, or go mad, catch fire, be transformed.” And eventually, “at the end of our exercises, which may take only a little while, though conceivably they could last until dawn (and in such a stalemated case, the closers would win by default)–the matter will be decided. Bad things happen to the losers.” All this stage-setting for the Halloween night mayhem represents the highlight for October 30th.

 

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 29th

[For the October 28th highlight, click here.]

 

October 29th

“Checking out the aftermath of the fire” at the Good Doctor’s place, Snuff encounters Needle sleeping in the hayloft of the barn. The two are soon attacked by the crossbow-wielding Vicar Roberts, but are saved by the Great Detective in his Linda Enderby disguise. The Great Detective then conveys to Snuff everything he has deduced about the Game and its players. Snuff tries to play dumb, affecting all the mannerisms of a beast of “subhuman intelligence”: “idiot slobbering,” yawning, scratching his ear with his hind leg. The Great Detective (who also announces his intention to try to save Lynette from being sacrificed during the Halloween ceremony, since Larry is likely to be hampered by his own “moon madness” and the silver-bullet-loaded pistol of the vicar) isn’t fooled one bit by Snuff’s act. But the amusing contrast between the detective’s expression of Sherlockian brilliance and Snuff’s simultaneous “dumb dog” routine forms the highlight for October 29th.

 

Regal Sequel (A Review of Long Live the Pumpkin Queen)

Long Live the Pumpkin Queen by Shea Ernshaw (Disney Press, 2022)

Nearly three decades after The Nightmare Before Christmas, there’s another nightmare brewing before Halloween.

Set shortly after the events of the beloved Tim Burton film, Shea Ernshaw’s YA fantasy novel begins with the wedding of Sally to Jack Skellington. While happy to be married to the bone man of her dreams, the newly crowned Pumpkin Queen frets over her new title and role. Riddled with self-doubt and feeling crushed by the press of expectations, she flees Halloween Town for a quiet walk through the Hinterlands. Beyond the grove of holiday trees, the hidden entrance to a forgotten realm is discovered, and when Sally accidentally leaves the door to this mysterious tree ajar, a worlds-spanning scourge is unleashed–a new Big Bad who makes Oogie Boogie seems cute and cuddly by comparison.

The novel offers readers the chance to revisit Burton’s colorful cast of monsters and to learn more about the dark holiday realm they inhabit: “In Halloween Town,” Sally notes, our graveyard rests on the outer border near the gate, where the howling voices of the dead can be heard echoing through the streets each night.” But it’s the excursion to the various other holiday towns that proves most remarkable here, as these fantasy worlds (Valentine’s Town, St. Patrick’s Town, etc.) are finely imagined and depicted via vivid detail.

Written in the first-person present tense, the narrative can feel a bit odd at first, but this stylistic choice creates a sense of dreamlike immersion that is appropriate to the plot. Ernshaw’s prose does shade toward the purple at times, and Sally’s repeated description of her emotions in terms of her ragdoll makeup (“My leaves stir wildly in my chest”; “dread slithers up and down my patchwork seams”) seems overdone. The metaphors get messy: after stating that her body is stuffed with “dried, shriveled leaves” and that she has “no bones to break,” Sally later refers to ” my linen bones” and an echo that “sends a spike of cold down to my tailbone.” But that’s my only real critique of this highly inventive and entertaining book.

Long Live the Pumpkin Queen is a fun fantasy novel that will delight Nightmare fans of all ages. I’m already dreaming of a potential screen adaptation by Disney–what better way to commemorate next year’s thirtieth anniversary of the original film’s release? Time to get started, Tim, on those stop-motion puppets…

 

Halloween Ubiquity

One of the many things I love about Halloween season is the wonderful abundance of holiday- and horror-related items online. Here are some (grave) sites that I’ve really dug so far this October:

 

Film School Rejects: This site’s “31 Days of Horror Lists” (e.g., “10 Best Horror Movies Set on Halloween Night”; “10 Deadliest Horror Movie Weapons”) are as inventive in topic as they are informative in content.

 

History.com: The dedicated Halloween page treats readers to a host of enlightening features, such as “How Trick-or-Treating Became a Halloween Tradition” and “Why Black Cats Are Associated With Halloween and Bad Luck.”

 

Halloween Daily News: The website’s name says it all. A worthy read the whole year round, but especially during October.

 

Cemetery Dance Online: The “Free Reads!” section of the publisher’s website has been running a cool interview feature called “How I Spend My Halloween.” So far this month, authors Cynthia Pelayo, Josh Malerman, V. Castro, Stephen Graham Jones, and Hailey Piper have revealed their holiday rituals.

 

Bloody Disgusting: This bountiful site always has terrific Halloween content, such as the editorials “10 of the Scariest Moments in Horror Movies Set Around Halloween” and “The 20 Best Scenes from the ‘Halloween’ Franchise.”

 

Book Riot: In this bibliophile paradise, readers can dive into such pieces as “20 Must-Read Halloween Nonfiction Books” and “Bookish Halloween Decorations for Your Fright and Reading Delight.”

 

CrimeReads: Recent pieces worth sampling are “The Very Human Horrors of Paul Tremblay,” “Discovering Charles Dickens’ ‘The Signalman,'” “Dracula vs. the FBI,” and “9 Works of Dark Humor Perfect for Halloween.”

 

Parade.com: Celebrants who veer toward the lighter side of the dark holiday will be happy to navigate over to the magazine’s “75 Funny Halloween Puns” and “75 Hilarious Halloween Riddles” webpages.

 

Wired: The posted video “13 Levels of Pumpkin Carving: Easy to Complex” might be the best tutorial ever on the topic.

 

Christine McConnell: On her YouTube channel, the goddess of macabre arts and crafts creates an amazing jack-o-lantern.

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 28th

[For the October 27th highlight, click here.]

 

October 28th

Various plot pieces fall into place on this night. With his recalculation of the pattern, Snuff at last identifies the site of the Halloween face-off: “It was here, Dog’s Nest, amid its broken circle of stone, where the final act would take place.” Bubo also conveniently summarizes what the Game is all about, articulating to Snuff the story “of how a number of the proper people are attracted to the proper place in the proper year on a night in the lonesome October when the moon shines full on Halloween and the way may be opened for the return of the Elder Gods to Earth, and of how some of these people would assist in the opening of the way for them while others would strive to keep the way closed.” For all the neatness of this chapter of Zelazny’s novel, its highlight arises from a reference to previous bit of professional messiness. After Jack comments that the other players will also divine the pattern’s central location within the next few days, Snuff replies, “…And the word will be passed. True. I can only recall one time when no one figured it properly.” It was a rare occasion a long time ago, Jack remarks, and Snuff provides further exposition: “Yes, and we all sat down to dinner together, made a joke of it, and went our ways.” Skilled, veteran players Snuff and Jack may be, but their Game record does contain one laughable tie.

 

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 27th

[For the October 26th highlight, click here.]

 

October 27th

The Good Doctor’s residence/secret laboratory has burned down (in a plot echo of the climax of Frankenstein). At the site of the razed home, Snuff and Graymalk meet Bubo, who explains: “The experiment man got mad at the Good Doctor and started wrecking the lab. Sparks from some of the equipment set the place burning.” More importantly, the rat confesses that he has been passing himself off as a Game player to “get respect and decent treatment from the rest” of the animals in the neighborhood. “I’d been hanging around the Good Doctor’s place already,” Bubo says, “for the leftovers from his work. So I let on that he was in the Game and I worked for him.” In actuality, the Good Doctor had just taken up residence there for the privacy it provided him as he conducted his experiments. This key bit of information concerning the Good Doctor (neither a closer nor an opener) also explains why Snuff’s calculations of the pattern have been consistently off: he’s included one Game participant too many (not failed to identify a “secret player”). The revelation that Zelazny has been employing a red herring in the case of this particular Universal-Monster-movie-alluding character comprises the highlight for the October 27th section of the novel.

 

Cutting-Edge Horror

David G. Hartwell’s classic anthology The Dark Descent is a massive textual chest brimming with terrifying treasures, but none more captivating than Michael Shea‘s 1980 novella “The Autopsy.” Shea’s unique blend of medical inquiry, body horror, and cosmic horror forms one of the most truly unnerving tales I’ve ever read. From my very first encounter with the narrative, I thought it would make for an incredible short film. Decades later, that adaptation (by director David Prior, from a teleplay by David S. Goyer) has finally occurred, with “The Autopsy” serving as the third episode of the new Netflix series Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.

The hour-long episode proves quite faithful in its translation of Shea’s into the televisual, capturing all of the creeping dread and visceral gruesomeness of the original narrative. Actually seeing the various autopsies performed might be even more affecting than reading about them (I’ll admit that at times the depth of medical information in Shea’s text has overwhelmed me). The postmortems–mostly conducted by forensic pathologist Dr. Carl Winters (F. Murray Abraham)–depicted onscreen here (via stunning fx) make The Autopsy of Jane Doe seem like a fun game of Operation. Fans of Lovecraftian horror will not want to miss this sublimely chilling effort.

 

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 26th

[For the October 25th highlight, click here.]

 

October 26th

The latest entry in Snuff’s narrative begins with the admission, “It was a slow day.” Snuff doesn’t even have any official rounds to make, so he decides “to prowl the woods, to keep the old instincts in shape.” Along the way, he senses someone following him: the prowler that the ward-screen previously detected snooping around outside Jack’s residence. After the man comments about all the peculiarity in the area, Snuff warns him about the upcoming Halloween upheaval: “Weird stuff” is set to transpire at month’s end. “A little specialized craziness. Stay away from any human gatherings that night.” But I’ll select the final paragraph of this short, change-of-pace chapter of Zelazny’s novel as the October 26th highlight: “Overhead, growing in strength, the older, wiser moon paced me. I’d give her a run for her silver.” The clever wordplay and poetic imagery presented by these closing lines serves as a reminder that for all its famous-monster references, the novel really proves so enjoyable because of Zelazny’s stellar prose.

 

Nights in the Ghostly October–A Review of Literally Dead: Tales of Halloween Hauntings

Literally Dead: Tales of Halloween Hauntings (Alienhead Press, 2022)

A theme anthology such as this one runs the risk of falling into the sentimental (beloved, departed relative returns from beyond the veil on Halloween) or the cliched (the holiday-observer who doesn’t realize his or her own ethereal state). Editor Gaby Triana’s selections tend to avoid such pitfalls, but the anthology is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of both form and content. The book features both fantastic cover art by Lynne Hanson (who recounts the image’s genesis in her introduction to Literally Dead) and wonderful end-of-text icons appropriate to each preceding story, but there are also some glaring errors (e.g. the anthology’s epigraph cites Stephen King’s Dance [sic] Macabre). Several of the stories fell flat for this reviewer from the start, while others engrossed me before proving disappointing with their endings or puzzling in their lack of recognizable connection to Halloween. Still, these tough-to-swallow stories only make the book’s real treats that much easier to relish. My pick for the six best pieces sampled:

“When They Fall” by Steve Rasnic Tem. A solitary man in a creepy hilltop manse is haunted (perhaps literally) by a tragic night of trick-or-treating in his family’s past. Quiet, shadowy horror in the grand tradition of Charles L. Grant.

“Ghosts of Candies Past” by Jeff Strand. Something is clearly amiss when the narrator’s children return home on Halloween with their trick-or-treat bags filled with discontinued confections in vintage wrappers. The uncanny soon gives way to the splattery, though, in this gloriously grotesque romp.

“The Ghost Lake Mermaid” by Alethea Kontis. Much like in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (which Kontis’s story resembles in its concerns with local lore and brutish bully figures), the aura here is more autumnal than Halloween-specific, but no matter. And if a mermaid at first seems an odd fantastical element to include in a ghost story, it certainly won’t by the end of this well-crafted account of a spirit-drenched lake.

“No One Sings in the City of the Dead” by Tim Waggoner. The most overtly horrific entry in the entire anthology (wait until you see what stuffs the Clown Lady’s treat bag!). A grieving widow resurrects her late husband with the help of a cemetery-dwelling “entity, who guards the gate between worlds, one who takes the form of a figure you find most frightening and who only appears on Halloween night” like some holiday-celebrating Pennywise.

“A Scavenger Hunt When the Veil is Thin” by Gwendolyn Kiste. Written in the second person, this list story guides the addressee through the titular Halloween ritual: the daring infiltration of the “decrepit abode” haunted by the ghost of its female owner (a nonconformist cast out and viciously persecuted by the townspeople). Transcending its ow horror scenario, Kiste’s narrative presents not just a frightful attempt to fulfill a prescribed task but also a feminist quest for liberation and self-direction.

“How to Unmake a Ghost” by Sara Tantlinger. Tantlinger’s story shares the same format as Kiste’s, yet is distinctive in its utter inventiveness. The text outlines the series of steps (carried out in a cemetery on Halloween night) required to overcome the parasitical side effects of having summoned the ghost of a loved one. A poignant tale of love and grief, of memory and the necessity of letting go–and a Stoker Award honoree in the making.

Literally Dead might not be a perfect anthology, but (thanks to these six standout tales alone) surely deserves a spot on the Halloween lover’s bookshelf.

 

Highlight of the Lonesome Night: October 25th

[For the October 24th highlight, click here.]

October 25th

Last night’s Halloween-style prank is given another wicked twist when the burnt body of Owen is discovered the next day in a basket right alongside the charred remains of the vanquished Things. The October 25th section of Zelazny’s novel focuses on the aftermath of the murder–on Snuff and Graymalk’s efforts to assist Owen’s surviving familiar Cheeter. According to the talking squirrel, his master “made me smarter. He gave me special things I can do, too, like that glide [down from a tree]. But I lost something for it. I want to trade all this in and go back to being what I was–a happy nut-chaser who doesn’t care about opening and closing.” What Cheeter has lost is his own shadow, magically separated from his body by Owen and bound to an occult diagram on the wall by seven silver nails (Snuff and Graymalk work diligently to liberate the shadow and restore it to its former caster). The revelation that the narrative’s familiars are not necessarily demonic entities in beastly disguise but rather magically-boosted animals from nature forms the highlight of this late October night.