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.