Hard (Case) Candy: A Review of Blood Sugar

When I learned that Hard Case Crime was publishing a new, Halloween-themed novel (one written by the co-author of The Shape of Water), I was immediately sold. I rushed to buy a copy of Daniel Kraus’s Blood Sugar and plunged into the book, which turned out to be quite an unexpected reading experience.

Blood Sugar surprises on several levels. First, it counters the immediate assumptions about the Halloween candy-tainting scheme that forms its central plot. Such mistreatment of costumed beggars is not being planned by some elderly neighborhood crank but by a young man and the group of kids who form his small circle of friends/surrogate family. Secondly, the narrative catches the reader (particularly the one anticipating typical genre fare) off-guard with its saturation by grotesque and outré detail. A perfect, squirm-inducing example: one quirky character here willingly mummifies herself with used flypaper teeming with still-wriggling insects.

Kraus’s eccentric October-set novel reads like the wild literary child of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (the anti-hero Robbie’s trashed house on Yellow Street makes Tyler Durden’s abode on Paper Street seem like the Taj Mahal). And while encountering a first-person narrator is no great shock in a Hard Case novel, the slang-heavy, streetwise-young-thug-affecting storytelling by the adolescent Jody certainly furnishes a unique take on the conventional perspective. Here’s a taste of Jody’s sic[k] verbiage:

We arent even off the stoop before Midge kneels down and investigates our jackolantern like shes from CSI Miami. Must be some beetles or worms up inside that big orange bitch. Moms bough tit from some banger with a shopping cart full a pumpkins and even though it was fungused I was psyched cuz Moms hardly ever gets out of bed and when she does its only to cross the street to reup her cigs cuz the dude that works there wont let me buy any for her. Last time moms acquired me something special like that was once upon a time and a galaxy far away.

I lugged that big orange bastard all the way down Yellow Street cuz Robbies got ten Ginsu knives hes super proud of and I knew theyd be perfect for doing pumpkins. Robbie warned me it was too early for carving and dang, yo, turns out fat boy was correct. Here its Halloween day and the jackolanterns mouth is sucked in like No Teeth Mike, this dude that shoots up from across the school. Its all withered and rotten and a gross poop color. Every time I look at it I think about Moms cuz shes the one that bough tit special for me and also cuz shes up in her room getting all withered and rotten too. Maybe moms has bugs in her head like the jackolantern does? That would explain a lot.

The many short chapters built with block paragraphs do give the book an episodic feel, and Blood Sugar lacks the hard-charging narrative drive of a typical caper novel. There’s not much suspense, either, because the intended crime is so heinous it couldn’t possibly be pulled off as planned (which isn’t to say there’s no poisonous candy dispersed during the disturbingly violent climax). Also, much ado is made throughout the book about dressing up in costume, but the overarching emphasis on grotesquerie tends to prevent the establishment of a true, autumnal-holiday atmosphere. Where Kraus’s version of a Halloween crime novel shines is in the dark brilliance of its narrative voice. This book is often laugh-out-loud funny, and beneath its vulgar exterior, surprisingly sweet. An unprecedented feat for Hard Case Crime (I doubt there will be anything like it put out by this publisher ever again), Blood Sugar proves to be a quite-satisfying seasonal treat.

This Dark Chest of Wonders (book review)

Commemorating the ruby anniversary of the disaster epic’s first publication, Andy Burns’s This Dark Chest of Wonders: 40 Years of Stephen King’s The Stand was released by Cemetery Dance back in 2018. My recent re-watch of the ABC miniseries adaptation of The Stand inspired me to catch up and dig down into this dark chest (whose title echoes King’s own dedication-page epithet for the 1978 novel).

Burns’s book is clearly a labor of love, which is not to say that it is marked by amateurish admiration. The author provides a wealth of information about King’s novel; his opening chapter details everything from King’s various sources of inspiration and the cultural context for The Stand‘s composition, to King’s struggles with Doubleday (who sought to abridge the hefty manuscript) and the subsequent reception of the novel (it was interesting to learn, considering the revered status of King’s novel amongst Constant Readers, that the 1978 edition’s “shelf life on the hardcover bestsellers list was relatively brief”). Burns incorporates copious quotes from King himself, drawn from previously-published interviews as well as from discussion of The Stand in nonfiction King books like Danse Macabre and On Writing. One quote I found particularly interesting was King’s revelation of the character in The Stand that he identifies most closely with (someone I never would have suspected).

This Dark Chest of Wonders is no mere monograph; Burns includes a panoply of commentators. Many chapters come in the form of interviews with pertinent personages. King experts such as Bev Vincent and Robin Furth make welcome appearances in these pages, and help shine a light on the character of the Dark Man, Randall Flagg.

A significant portion of the book covers the miniseries version of The Stand. There’s a lengthy (and proportionately enjoyable) interview with Mick Garris, in which the director takes the audience behind the scenes via extensive discussion of the casting and filming of the miniseries. Along the way, Garris gives us a precious anecdote–about how King himself was scared off the set during the filming of the climactic mob scene (Flagg’s staging of the public execution of Larry Underwood and Ralph Brentner).

In his introduction to the book, Burns promises to “unearth all that is contained within this dark chest of wonders that is Stephen King’s The Stand,” and this completist certainly isn’t kidding. By the time Burns turns to interviewing the narrator of the audiobook version and the illustrator of the comic book version, one starts to wonder if this dark chest is going to transform into a trove of the trivial. In retrospect, the book is best enjoyed in small (even random) samples rather than a straight binge. There is a noticeable repetition of information, and the same quotes get used in different chapters. Burns poses similar questions to his various interview subjects–most prominently, why they think King’s novel resonates four decades after its initial printing. The diverse responses to this prompt, though, leave little doubt that The Stand is still terribly relevant, and thus reinforce the reason for a book like Burns’s.

The hardcover edition of This Dark Chest of Wonders is arguably a worthwhile purchase only for hardcore collectors, but the more moderately priced Kindle e-book makes for a valuable addition to the library of any fan of King’s classic post-apocalyptic tale of the superflu and the supernatural.

 

Prime Evil: Thirtieth Anniversary Review

1988 was a banner year for horror anthologies, delivering not only Silver Scream (which did include several reprints in its table of contents), but also Prime Evil: New Stories of Modern Horror. I recently reread the latter, Douglas-E.-Winter-edited anthology, curious to see how it holds up three decades later. The short answer is “amazingly well”; allow me to elaborate, though, on the individual selections.

“The Night Flier” by Stephen King. “Count Dracula with a private pilot’s license” (as the story’s Kolchakian investigator quips) doesn’t do justice to this atmospheric and allusive tale that forms a clever riff on The Night Stalker. Perfectly paced, the piece builds to a terrifying climax (the urinal scene furnished an image that has stayed with me for thirty years). One of King’s more underrated works of short fiction.

“Having a Woman at Lunch” by Paul Hazel. Hazel’s was (and ostensibly remains) the least recognizable name in the book, and his entry the least satisfying. The punchline of this brief, pedestrian bit of black comedy is captured by the story title, removing any real need to read further.

“The Blood Kiss” by Dennis Etchinson. Etchinson’s intricately structured story cuts back and forth between the script of a zombie-themed TV episode and the narrative of an accidental encounter with a psycho on Valentine’s Day. This one must have seemed very meta- and postmodern when it was first published, and doesn’t pale when looked back upon from a post-Scream vantage point.

“Coming to Grief” by Clive Barker. The immensity–not to mention the diversity–of the author’s talent is on full display in this understated meditation on mortality and mourning. Barker proves that his horror extends beyond graphic splashes across the page, while depicting a quarry-haunting Bogey that represents one of his most frightening creations.

“Food” by Thomas Tessier. The veteran horror reader can anticipate where this story (of awful apotheosis) is headed, but that doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the journey. Tessier strikes a fine balance here between urbanity and grotesquerie.

“The Great God Pan” by M. John Harrison. Disclosure: as a teenager back in 1988, I didn’t know Arthur Machen from Arthur Treacher’s (and actually thought going in that the last word of Harrison’s title signified a frying pan!). Thirty years on, I’ve grown much more genre-aware, enough to know that Harrison’s tale, while rich in uncanny imagery, fails to stack up against its totemic namesake.

“Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell. What if David Morrell turned to writing a more Lovecraftian type of cosmic horror? One need not wonder anymore after reading this unforgettable tale of weirdly-caused artistic madness. One of Morrell’s most fantastic efforts, in every sense of the word.

“The Juniper Tree” by Peter Straub. Straub focuses here on the mundane horrors of parental neglect and sexual abuse (by a predator in a movie theater). I can remember being underwhelmed by this long, downbeat story when it was first published, and, unfortunately, it still falls flat for me in 2018.

“Spinning Tales with the Dead” by Charles L. Grant. This tale of a ghost-haunted fishing trip reads like a more horrific version of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” For me, Grant’s trademark brand of quiet horror often straddles a fine line between obliquity and obscurity, but there’s no misunderstanding the shadows darkening this particular narrative.

“Alice’s Last Adventure” by Thomas Ligotti. The master of the eerie short story is in top form in this unnerving first-person account of an author haunted by the macabre and mischievous protagonist of her series of children’s books. Ligotti’s 1989 story “Conversations in a Dead Language” might be better known today, but his entry in Prime Evil is another terrific foray into Halloween horror.

“Next Time You’ll Know Me” by Ramsey Campbell. Campbell’s penchant for penning darkly witty and dreadfully realistic scenarios is evident in this monologue by a dangerous, deluded plagiarist. In retrospect, this succinct story also anticipates Campbell’s similarly deranged-author-themed novel, Secret Story.

“The Pool” by Whitley Strieber. A backyard swimming pool is transformed into a site of abysmal creepiness, and the horror of losing one’s child is given an otherworldly twist. Powerful in and of itself, Strieber’s story also intrigues because it is the first fiction the author produced following his controversial claims of alien abduction in Communion: A True Story.

“By Reason of Darkness” by Jack Cady. Cady draws readers into a Conradian heart of darkness inhabited by the literal–and decidedly unfriendly–ghosts of war. Exquisitely envisioned, and building toward a harrowing climax, Cady’s masterpiece of a novella should have long since been developed into a feature film.

With classic works by Morrell and Cady, and strong offerings by King, Barker, and Ligotti, Prime Evil bears out its titular hint at supremacy. The most important piece in the entire volume, though, might be Winter’s introduction. Tracing the nature (Winter famously defines horror as an emotion rather than a genre) and modern history of horror, the essay shines with insight. This nonfiction document alone made the anthology a must-read when first published, and makes it a must-find now for any fan or aspiring writer who wasn’t around back in the Eighties.

 

Lofty Status: A Review of Stephen King’s Elevation

“Really weird shit” is happening once again in Castle Rock, Maine, but Elevation isn’t the typical Stephen King return to that oft-horrified town.

In one sense, King is up to some (not so) old tricks: just as his previous revisiting of Castle Rock, 2017’s Gwendy’s Button Box, hearkens back to Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” Elevation (which cites Matheson on its dedication page) invokes The Shrinking Man. Like the homonymous protagonist of Matheson’s novel, Scott Carey is subjected to a strange case of reducing. King’s Carey is steadily losing weight but somehow his size and muscle mass remain unaltered. His scale gives the same readout whether he is naked or clothed, barehanded or holding a pair of dumbbells.

The narrative is deliberately vague as to the origin of Carey’s condition: is it medical, metaphysical, or even extra-terrestrial in nature? And while Carey presumes his situation is terminal (as he anticipates the approach of “Zero Day”) his story does not unfold as a desperate quest to discover the cause or effects-reducing cure for his weightlessness. This isn’t a redux of Thinner–Carey hasn’t been cursed by a vengeful gypsy, but instead considers himself singled out by “antic providence.” Yes, he is dropping pounds, yet gravity’s inexplicably lessening hold on him is also raising his spirits. His predicament becomes oddly exhilarating, something even better than what a long-distance runner experiences: “Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go farther still.”

King is less interested in the outre here: Carey’s curious condition is used as a means to getting at the true heart of the narrative, the developing (initially unfriendly) relationship between the divorced, isolated Carey and his neighbors, Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson. These partners in a same-sex marriage have recently moved into town, but haven’t been welcomed with open arms by most of the populace. Whereas the Castle Rock setting of Gwendy’s Button Box felt extraneous (less charitably: like a cheap marketing ploy), here it makes for an appropriate choice of story place. Conservatively Republican in its politics, King’s fictional small town is given to provincial thought and prejudicial verbiage, and Deirdre and Missy struggle to keep their new restaurant afloat financially amidst such cold-shouldering by the locals. It’s up to Carey, then, to help the couple carry on in this town, and to help Castle Rock rise above its discriminatory attitudes.

A quick word on Elevation‘s packaging: Scribner has published a fine 5×7 hardcover, complete with cosmic cover art (whose significance becomes clear by novel’s end) and interior illustrations. The physical book feels good to hold; still, the $19.95 price tag could be a hold-up for some. Buyers will have to decide if the Kindle edition is the more sensible option.

While its page count doesn’t weigh in anywhere near that of the hefty tomes King usually produces, Elevation proves anything but slight. This thematically-resonant narrative is heavy on human decency, exploring the various ways we extend a (literal and figurative) helping hand to each other. A pick-me-up is also what King offers his Constant Readers here, as Elevation represents the most uplifting, downright transcendent effort in the author’s illustrious career.

 

Big, Black, and Orange: A Review of The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories

The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories: Terrifying Tales Set on the Scariest Night of the Year! Edited by Stephen Jones. Skyhorse Publishing, 2018.

Featuring twenty-six stories (and one poem), and weighing in at over 500 pages, Jones’s anthology certainly fulfills its titular claims of prodigiousness. Some of the High Holiday highlights within:

From its baroque title to its weird and unsettling imagery, James Ebersole’s “The Phenakisticope of Decay” (concerning trick-or-treaters’ encounter with a sinister low-tech cartoon-viewing device) reads like a product of Thomas Ligotti’s Nightmare Factory. The story’s ending perhaps falls a bit short of the mark, but that doesn’t detract from the macabre magnificence that precedes it.

Storm Constantine’s “Bone Fire” burns bright as the author rekindles Halloween’s Celtic roots. This tale of demons, fairies, and pagan celebrations is both beautifully written and suffused with sharp plot twists.

I love science-fictional variations on the Halloween tale (e.g., Al Sarrantonio’s “Red Eve”; Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still”), and Lisa Morton’s “The Ultimate Halloween Party App” can now be added to that short list. Morton’s story of rampant terrorism and neurotechnological misdeed downloads a rollicking monster mash into readers’ imaginations.

Set in Finland, Michael Marshall Smith’s “The Scariest Thing in the World” invokes Halloween in a more philosophical manner, and the referent of its title is not some facile frightener. The narrative simmers and simmers…until it reaches its explosive final line.

Thana Niveau’s “White Mare” presents Americans abroad and accosted by an angry mob of villagers on Halloween night. The strange customs maintained here in the English countryside are enough to make the festivities in The Wicker Man seem like a gathering around a cozy campfire.

These are all original pieces, but the strongest entries in the anthology (which opens with Neil Gaiman’s classic Bradbury homage, “October in the Chair”) are its reprints. Angela Slatter’s “The October Widow” combines an intimate tale of love and loss with hints of an autumnal apocalypse. Renowned for his darkly comedic voice, Joe R. Lansdale reminds us what a harrowing raconteur he also is in “The Folding Man”–a supernatural take on the “black car” legend. Ramsey Campbell establishes himself once again as the master of the creepy detail in “Her Face,” and Christopher Fowler’s narrator “Lantern Jack” regales listeners with the history of a haunted (especially on Halloween) London pub built on an ancient, ignis-fatuus-producing peat bog.

As is the case with most Jones anthologies, non-American authors dominate the table of contents here. So for those residing in our macabre republic, this collection might prove not quite what was expected (there’s rare display of U.S. settings/holiday observances). But while The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories ultimately does not stack up to last year’s Ellen-Datlow-and-Lisa-Morton-edited anthology Haunted Nights (reviewed here), it still warrants top-shelf slotting in the Halloween fiction lover’s library.

 

Trick or Treat (Book Review)

One more import from the Macabre Republic blog, this time of a review that I posted in 2012.

 

Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween by Lisa Morton (Reaktion Books, 2012)

The latest nonfiction study of the October holiday by Morton (author of The Halloween Encyclopedia) can be summed up in two words: impressively comprehensive.

Trick or Treat takes a “look at both the history of the festival and its growth around the world in the twenty-first century.” The book traces the Celtic origins of Halloween, its evolution in the British Isles, its transportation to America and subsequent proliferation worldwide. Along the way, readers learn about every Halloween custom and ritual imaginable.

The book works more as a survey than a critical analysis (when Morton operates in the latter mode, she has a penchant for employing the waffling phrasing “It’s probably no coincidence that…”). Chapters focusing on Great Britain and the global variations of the holiday will probably be of less interest to the average American reader, but the long final chapter covering Halloween’s manifold manifestations in pop culture is worth the price of purchase alone. Overall, Trick or Treat brims with informational goodness; the volume promises to serve as a valuable reference tool for folklorists, fiction writers, and Halloween aficionados alike.

 

Halloween Nation (Book Review)

Another re-post, of a book review that appeared on the Macabre blog during the 2011 Halloween season.

 

Halloween Nation: Behind the Scenes of America’s Fright Night by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne (Pelican Publishing Company, 2011)

America’s leading black-and-orange journalist returns to investigate and celebrate the October holiday season. In Halloween Nation, Bannatyne poses the key questions (the most overarching one being: “What does Halloween mean right now and what purpose does it serve?”) and considers all the relevant elements (witches, ghosts, zombies, pumpkins, pranksters, etc.). Her study is at once fascinatingly informative (in particular the chapter tracing the origin of the jack-o’-lantern) and endlessly entertaining. Bannatyne writes with a sense of humor, a prose style reminiscent of Mary Roach (whose work she cites). For instance, when learning of the amazing growth rate of giant-sized pumpkins, the author observes: “Forty pounds a day? That’s like growing a six-year-old over the weekend.” Describing a weigh-off of such gargantuan gourds, Bannatyne offers: “When a 1,180-pounder knocks the rest out of the competition, the crowd roars, and the pumpkin glides through the arena on the forklift like a plus-sized beauty queen on a parade float.”

All this is not to suggest that the author has taken a flippant attitude toward her subject matter, or that she didn’t work hard to produce this book. Like a Charles Kuralt for our macabre republic, Bannatyne spent two years on the road interviewing haunters, performers, and other holiday celebrants across the country. Halloween Nation is an undeniably democratic tome: Bannatyne doesn’t just forward her own ideas but gives voice to the perspectives of countless others. The book seems as populous throughout as the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade (which Bannatyne covers in Chapter Seven).

Brimming with brilliant color photos and illustrations, Halloween Nation is a perfect coffee table book to engross visitors to your home this October. The book’s written content (not to mention its extensive “Resources” appendix) is guaranteed to send you surfing the Internet to learn more about the people, places, and events Bannatyne discusses. Such extra-textual forays, though, will not keep you from delving eagerly back into Bannatyne’s pages again and again. I’m not waxing hyperbolic when I state that this insightful and delightful book is an absolute must-read for every unabashed Halloween-ophile.

 

Johnny Halloween (Book Review)

The review of this story collection first appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog in October 2010.

 

Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season by Norman Partridge (Cemetery Dance, 2010)

This slim yet bountiful volume collects Partridge’s Halloween-based short fiction written over the past two decades. The stories, though, are unified by more than the holiday at month’s end, as signaled by the two nonfiction pieces included here. In his Introduction, Partridge recounts growing up in the sixties as a “card-carrying monsterkid.” The Universal Monsters served as formative influences, and naturally Halloween constituted the most beloved night of the year. But there was another, non-cherished experience that imprinted Partridge’s childhood: in October 1969, Partridge was an eleven-year-old boy living in Vallejo, California, a town that the serial killer known as the Zodiac had chosen as his personal hunting ground. Chillingly, Partridge was forced to realize “that the scariest monsters wore human skin.” The author-to-be received an early lesson in American Gothic, as hinted at in his reaction to the police artist’s sketch of the Zodiac printed in the local newspaper: “His face was like the faces of a half-dozen fathers who lived in my very own neighborhood, right down to the horn-rim glasses. He could have been sitting at a breakfast table down the block, eating Corn Flakes while I stared at his picture on the front page.”

Partridge, in the autobiographical essay “The Man Who Killed Halloween,” elaborates on the shadow cast over his hometown by the Zodiac, noting that the killings were “like an urban legend come to life.” As suggested by the essay’s title, the Zodiac’s reign of terror also marked a loss of American innocence—neither Vallejo nor Halloween ever seemed to be the same again. The essay can shed only so much light on the still-unsolved mystery regarding the Zodiac, but it does provide the reader a much better understanding of why the adult Partridge’s fiction features Halloween masks as recurrent props and duplicitous human monsters as central characters.

The title story (originally published in Cemetery Dance magazine) is vintage Partridge: a bit of Halloween noir involving liquor store hold-ups (past and present), small-town intrigue, and an anti-heroic sheriff (indeed, there’s enough story packed into the pages of “Johnny Halloween” to make for a rousing feature-length film). In keeping with the theme of human monstrosity, the eponymous robber disguises himself with a pumpkin face—a mask that eventually (and symbolically) is taken possession of by the narrating sheriff. But I’ll let you find out for yourself what ol’ Dutch decides to do with it…

“Satan’s Army,” meanwhile, is comprised of an itinerant evangelist (who’s not content to merely preach about the evils of Halloween) and his fervent minions. The tale is pure American Gothic, even including an elderly “Mother” and “Dad” couple who appear to be the perfect neighbors but are actually busy splicing razorblades into apples. And surprise, surprise, a Halloween mask (in this case, the burlap hood of a scarecrow) proves central to the story.

“Treats” has long been a personal favorite Partridge story of mine. The brief tale opens with a mother named Maddie shopping for Halloween candy in the supermarket, and then gets progressively creepier as we learn why she is so harried. Her tyrannical monster of a son “Jimmy was at home with them. He’d said that they were preparing for Operation Trojan Horse.” Fans of golden-age horror/sci-fi cinema will have no trouble identifying the inhuman “them” that Jimmy commands.

In his Introduction to the book, Partridge notes the prevalence of cemeteries (inhabited by “some pretty disturbing monsters,” human and otherwise) in his fiction. “Black Leather Kites” forms a perfect instance of this. The story, tracing the dark machinations of devil-cultist werebats on Halloween night, is enjoyable not just for its wonderfully weird plot but for the humorous banter between the deputy protagonist and his brother-in-law.

Like “Black Leather Kites,” “Three Doors” climaxes in a cemetery. The tale involves a physically- and psychologically-wounded veteran who paints his prosthetic hand black for Halloween in the hopes of gaining magical powers (that will in turn help effect his elopement with the girl he loves). Plot-wise, this is probably the least effective entry in the book; I suspect that some readers will be disappointed by the conclusion of this highly self-conscious story. Nonetheless, Partridge’s hard-boiled voice resounds like the brusque knocks of the protagonist’s fist.

The one piece original to the collection, “The Jack O’ Lantern,” makes Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season a must-have even if you are already familiar with the other selections. This volume-concluding novelette serves as a prequel to Partridge’s incredible Halloween novel Dark Harvest. The narrative is at once action-packed and contemplative, reflecting upon what it’s like to grow up living in a strictly dead-end town.

If you want to treat yourself to some fine reading this Halloween season, trek on over to Cemetery Dance and drop a copy of Johnny Halloween into your goody bag.

 

Halloween: New Poems (Book Review)

Another re-post, of a review that appeared on the Macabre blog way back in 2010.

Halloween: New Poems, Edited by Al Sarrantonio (Cemetery Dance Publications, 2010)

The Halloween Season is fast approaching, and what better way to ready for it than to read this delightful anthology put together by renowned October scribe Al Sarrantonio (HorrorweenHallows EveHalloweenland). Halloween: New Poems collects 41 (i.e. 10 + 31) pieces of original work by 19 different luminaries in the horror genre (and also features stellar artwork by Alan Clark and Keith Minion). Some of the standout poems are Steve Rasnic Tem’s “How to Play Dead,” which kicks off the book with an eerie narrative about a glutinous doorstep beggar, and Elizabeth Massie’s “Spider’s Night Out,” which  presents the holiday from the titular insect’s point of view. Tom Piccirilli’s “Phantom Pains” is a haunting tale of tragedy and remorse, and James A. Moore’s “Autumn” wonderfully matches the bereft mood of the speaker to the season’s dying landscape. Sarrantonio himself weighs in with a trio of amusing poems whose concise lines read like a cross between Ray Bradbury and Emily Dickinson. Perhaps the highlight of the book, though, is the inclusion of the first-ever published verse by Joe R. Lansdale. Lansdale’s distinctive style and darkly comedic worldview are on display in a half-dozen entries, including the gloriously grisly “Observing Nature on Halloween Night.”

Halloween: New Poems features a surprising number of pieces that employ quick-fire rhymes, which at times give the contents of the book a sing-song quality. But Bradley Denton, whose “Cap’n Hook (A Tale of the Prairie)” forms the longest (and most visceral) selection in the anthology, seems wryly self-aware of the limerick-like quality of its stanzas. Take, for example, the following excerpt, in which a group of teenage farmhands lust after the boss’s daughter:

Now wait just a minute,”
piped up both of the Bobs.
“I saw her this morning
“when we came for the job.

“She was there by the barn
“as we got in the truck.
She was watchin’ and grinnin’
“like she wanted to–”

“Hold on now!” snapped Jimmy.
“Y’all can just stop it!
“We’re here to throw bales,
“not to spread lies and gossip!”

At $40, the price of the trade hardcover will no doubt be steep for the non-collector–especially considering that the slim volume can be read in about an hour. At the same time, though, this is the type of book that you’ll eagerly pull off your shelf year after year; such assured treasuring makes Halloween: New Poems a worthy investment in October festiveness.

 

Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre (Book Review)

The following is a re-post of a review that appeared on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2013.

 

Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre. Edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2013).

Guran’s previous high-holiday effort, 2011’s Halloween, was an indisputable October treasury; perhaps its only drawback was that it consisted strictly of reprints, meaning that ardent fans of Halloween fiction were likely to have encountered many of the selections before. But Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre poses no such problem, presenting readers with eighteen (highly) original stories. Some of the standouts:

• “Thirteen” by Stephen Graham Jones. A tale (the best of its kind since Joe Hill’s “Twentieth Century Ghost”) that takes the haunted theater motif in a startlingly different direction. Jones effortlessly blends small-town reality with supernatural sinisterness.

• “The Mummy’s Heart” by Norman Partridge. This one features a monster kid run amok, a psycho who’s seen one too many Karloff movies. The real fun, though, starts when dark crime shades over into dark fantasy. Lovers of the Universal monster movies will be enthralled by Partridge’s re-bandaging of the mummy mythos.

• “Long Way Home: A Pine Deep Story” by Jonathan Maberry. A quietly haunting piece in its own right, this narrative is also noteworthy for its depiction of Pine Deep several years after the cataclysmic events of the novel trilogy (cf. Stephen King’s “One for the Road”). “Long Way Home” excitingly suggests that Maberry is a long way from done with mining the Most Haunted Town in America for story material.

• “The Halloween Men” by Maria V. Snyder. The most Bradbury-esque entry in the anthology, but the Bradbury of the dystopian “Usher II” more than Something Wicked This Way Comes. Snyder’s alternate-Venice setting is captivating, and her carnivalesque reworking of the idea of the Halloween mask is terribly clever.

• “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still” by Caitlin R. Kiernan. A work that transports readers to a colonized Mars in the far future, yet hearkens back to the ancient Celtic roots of Halloween. Kiernan’s story is to be cherished both for its diligent world-building and its mesmerizing prose.

• “We, the Fortunate Bereaved” by Brian Hodge. The best treat in the whole goody bag.  I’ll have more to say about this piece in a subsequent post.

As its subtitle heralds, Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre offers a variety of genre approaches to the October holiday. The anthology furnishes ample proof that new tricks can be wrung from old tropes, so here’s hoping that Guran (who bookends the contents with an entertaining intro and editor bio) continues to solicit groundbreaking stories and produces additional all-new Halloween ensembles in the coming autumns.