Blood’s a Winner

Vic and Blood…together at last. Blood’s a Rover presents the complete adventures of the wild boy and his telepathic dog. Their tales–in the form of two stories, a dialogue, a novella, and a teleplay (not to mention the epigraphic “Wit and Wisdom of Blood” interspersed throughout)–are gathered here for the first time in a rewarding volume that reads like an episodic novel.

Back in 1969, Harlan Ellison published “A Boy and His Dog,” the proto-cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic classic that stands as arguably his most popular and revered work. The novella depicts a bombed-out America roamed by teenage scavengers, who exist as “solos” or gang up into “roverpacks.” Ragged individualist Vic falls into the former camp, but he does have his canine companion (more partner than pet, as the ongoing struggle for survival draws Blood together with Vic in a symbiotic, if not always simpatico, relationship). Just as the story itself is set both along and below the surface of the ravaged earth, “A Boy and His Dog,” works on multiple levels. On the most primitive, it splashes glorious amounts of graphic sex and violence across its pages. It offers some good-old, anti-heroic bad-assery (with Vic emerging as a literary sibling of Huck Finn and Alex the Droog alike). The story features both sophisticated wit and raucous banter; the climax adds a twist of dark-as-the-grave black humor. Ellison’s transgressive narrative is also a masterpiece of carnivalesque inversion, starting with the fact that Blood is more erudite and morally-advanced than his impulsive, animalistic human “master.” Similarly, the Middle-American idyll created by the subterranean dwellers proves an artificial construct, its stultifying civility hardly preferable to the chaos and constant danger Vic has faced above ground. Indeed, the spuriousness of the suburban splendor of the Topeka “downunder” is exposed when the folksy villagers are last seen having devolved into an angry mob.

While the prequel (“Eggsucker”) and sequel (“Run, Spot, Run”) stories to “A Boy and His Dog” lack the virtuosity of Ellison’s lauded novella, they serve as much more here than mere filler. These further escapades across a devastated landscape expand upon the complexities of the Vic-Blood relationship–the arguments, betrayals, desertions, and ultimately-enduring camaraderie. The pair of stories also form an interesting counterpoint to “A Boy and His Dog” in terms of technique, as here it is Blood–not Vic–who supplies the first-person (“first-canine”?) narration.

Nearly half of the page-space in Blood’s a Rover is taken up by the titular teleplay (which Ellison scripted for a prospective late-1970’s series that was never developed). This sudden jump into a different literary medium isn’t as jarring as it sounds, as Ellison’s teleplay practically reads like narrative fiction (albeit with dialogue in altered form). “Blood’s a Rover” extends seamlessly from the preceding pieces, and brings the Vic and Blood adventures to a satisfying conclusion. Certain plot points are finally delineated: we get to see the long-awaited showdown between Vic and Fellini, the grotesque, despotic gang-leader (think a humanoid Jabba the Hutt) that Vic has run afoul of throughout the series of stories. There is also some neat thematic symmetry, as a new (not necessarily love-) triangle forms: the introduction of tough girl Spike disrupts the relationship between Vic and Blood, recalling the wedging effect of sexpot Quilla June in “A Boy and His Dog”.

Reading this posthumous volume is a bittersweet experience: the book is enormously entertaining, yet also a sad reminder that the world lost a literary genius with Ellison’s recent passing. Regrettably, there will be no further adventures recounted (in his foreword, editor Jason Davis notes that Ellison was debilitated by a stroke back in 2014 after just beginning to draft a new Vic and Blood story). But thankfully, we do have this terrific release from Subterranean Press to relish. Blood’s a Rover is well worth settling down with, whether in these dog days of summer or any other time of year.

The One Who Is Applauding

Glen Hirshberg has distinguished himself as an indisputable master of the American ghost story, but it is neither fair nor quite accurate to label him a writer of genre horror. The very subtitle running across the cover of The Ones Who Are Waving (Hirshberg’s fourth collection, following The Two SamsAmerican Morons, and The Janus Tree and Other Stories) establishes that there is more at stake than mere shiver-inducing. These are “Tales of the Strange, Sad, and Wondrous.” The classification just as easily could have read “Tales of Exquisite Craftsmanship.”

Hirshberg’s prose is marked by literary style; his plots are rich in nuance. To use a cinematic analogy, his stories are Oscar-season releases rather than summer blockbusters. A perfect illustration of this is the story “Shaken,” which centers on the earthquake (and subsequent tsunami) that devastated Japan in 2011. Godzilla is referenced here, not to mention a native mythological beastie named Namazu, but Hirshberg doesn’t resort to some lumbering, Tokyo-stomping monstrosity for horrific effect. The title captures not just the literal earthquake but also the psychological aftershocks suffered by the elderly protagonist Thomas, who following his unsettling experience in Japan is now terrorized by the thought that terra firma isn’t firm at all (he also grows to shudder at modern American horrors such as 9/11 and the Columbine massacre). As the mentally-listing Thomas frets over the inevitable decimation of human civilization, “Shaken” strikes a haunting note of existential dread.

Admittedly, I was disappointed the first time I read “A Small Part of the Pantomime” (in the 2014 anthology Nightmare Carnival), in large part because this follow-up to Hirshberg’s Halloween classic “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” didn’t delve as directly into the legendary haunted attraction. My appreciation for the sequel, though, has increased exponentially upon rereading. “A Small Part of the Pantomime” creates incredible suspense as it slowly unfolds the story of what happened to David Roemer following the tragic events of “Mr. Dark’s Carnival.” The ghostly elements prove all the more unnerving for not being confined to a spook house, as Hirshberg transforms the grassy plains of eastern Montana into an expansive scene of supernatural menace. In retrospect, “Mr. Dark’s Carnival” and “A Small Part of the Pantomime” form perfect complements to one another; these two stories would combine to make one hell of a movie (imagine a Mike Flanagan adaptation on Netflix!).

The volume also gathers three “Normal and Nadine Adventures”: “Pride,” “His Only Audience,” and “Hexenhaus.” In his introductory note to these works (in which the protagonists travel the country trying to track down esoteric items for clients, only to find themselves in uncanny territory), Hirshberg points out the difficulty of writing “occult detective” fiction: “The beats are different. […] Detective stories are, in the end, about resolution, however complicated or equivocal. and ghost stories are about mystery. […] My solution was to try to create stories that inhabit the chasm between those ideals, rather than bridge it.”  At this, Hirshberg succeeds brilliantly. The plots (to get into specifics here would spoil the fun of gradual discovery) don’t just resolve; they resonate. Also, Normal (better known as “The Collector”) and Nadine are not just a couple of Kolchak knock-offs, the Mulder and Scully of the private sector, episodically encountering the Monster of the Week. As a pair of characters, they are at once intriguing and endearing. While each piece is self-contained, there are intimations of a larger backstory (we have more to learn about Normal and Nadine individually, and as a couple). Here’s hoping that Hirshberg scripts further adventures, enough to fill a separate volume someday.

The closing, title story is a metafictional mindf**k that gives a dark fantastic twist to Glen Hirshberg and Peter Atkins’s own experiences with the Rolling Darkness Revue (their touring ghost story troupe). “The Ones Who Are Waving” offers a creepy curse, a surreal climactic reveal, and perhaps best of all, a glimpse behind the curtain of the Rolling Darkness Revue. Those (such as myself) who were always fascinated by the concept but, alas, lived far afield of where the tour stopped every October, get a chance at last to glimpse Hirshberg and Atkins…and then some.

Hirshberg’s narratives are never facile; they take their time to develop (which is not to say they are slow-moving–the reader is propelled by the urge to understand what is actually going on, to discover the wonder or wickedness lying ahead). Nor do they typically present neat moral wrap-up, instead requiring the reader to wrestle with the implications of what has just been recounted. But for anyone willing to put in the work, The Ones Who are Waving pays off as a treasure trove of fine storytelling.

Must-Have Nightmares

Editors Joe Mynhardt and Eugene Johnson’s Where Nightmares Come From: The Art of Storytelling in the Horror Genre (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2017) is a brilliantly variegated collection, covering horror in its multiple media incarnations and different stages of creation. Some of the volume’s brightest highlights include:

Joe R. Lansdale’s “It’s the Storyteller.” Starting with its very title, Lansdale’s piece refutes the (Stephen) Kingly notion “that it’s not the teller, it’s the tale that matters” (Lansdale argues that King’s own fiction disproves the point: “it’s his voice, his passion for storytelling, that hooks the reader”). According to Lansdale, “Storytelling is the tone and attitude of the storyteller, and a good storyteller is usually releasing their personality into the story, unbound by plot restrictions.” Lansdale shares his own approach to storytelling, and offers a plenitude of suggestions for writers looking to jump start the creative process.

Clive Barker’s “A-Z of Horror.” Eloquent and insightful as always, Barker considers the nature and personal/cultural function of horror. Speculating on a common thread running through the various manifestations of horror, he offers: “Perhaps the body and its vulnerability. Perhaps the mind and its brittleness. Perhaps love and its absence.” Beyond mere shock value, horror elicits a wealth of complex responses: “It can shame us into recognizing our own capacity for cruelty; it can arouse us, making plain the connection between death and sexual feeling; it can inspire our imaginations, removing us to places where our most sacred taboos may be challenged and overturned.” Barker’s essay not only serves as a helpful key to reading his own fiction, but also makes a convincing case for viewing horror as a serious and significant art form.

Mark Alan Miller’s “Why Horror?” Miller attempts to reply to his essay’s titular inquiry with admirable rigorousness. Among his numerous answers is the assertion that the genre does not simply provide an escape from the violent and vexing ways of the real world, but allows us to wrestle with them: “Why horror? Because life is horrible sometimes, and working through those horrors is the only way we can make sense of it when everything else has failed us.” As accessible as it is enlightening, Miller’s piece ranks as one of the best ever written on the subject.

Michael Paul Gonzalez’s “Pixelated Shadows: Urban Lore and the Rise of Creepypasta.” Gonzalez’s impressively extensive essay begins with a thorough taxonomy of story archetypes–myths, saga, fable, folk tales, fairy tales. Not content to point out distinctions, Gonzalez also traces developments over time, which leads him to creepypasta and its reality-blurring elements:

The appeal of the modern urban legend thus becomes an evolution from a spooky campfire tale (Have you heard the story of . . . ?) to a presentation of near-fact (Let me show you the story of . . . ). Horror once challenged readers to stay with the story, to confront the monsters lurking in the shadows and find catharsis in the ending of the story. Now, the story oozes from the page, creeping like a low black fog into our everyday lives.

While appreciable as a critical analysis of creepypasta alone, Gonzalez’s essay grows invaluable when the author explores how horror writers might learn from the phenomenon and adapt its techniques to bolster both their own storytelling and the marketing of their fiction.

Tim Waggoner’s “Horror is a State of Mind.” Aspiring horror writers have long been told the importance of creating three-dimensional, relatable characters (not just cardboard targets to be mowed down by some monstrous antagonist), but Waggoner ranges beyond such basic advice to delve deep into a character-based approach. He strives to make us “understand that horror arises from consciousness. Horror is an emotion, a reaction to something that violates our sense of what we believe to be our normal and (mostly) safe reality. In other words, horror begins inside a character’s head. The story isn’t about what happens. It’s about what a character perceives to be happening, and how that perception impacts the character.” The specific techniques for working from this “inside-out” perspective that Waggoner proceeds to describe transforms his essay into a virtual master class on the crafting of effective horror.

I could go on and on here, waxing ecstatic about the entries that provide valuable insight into the aesthetic tastes of leading editors/anthologists such as Richard Thomas, Michael Bailey, and Jonathan Maberry; the essays in which writers such as Ramsey Campbell and Mort Castle present a behind-the-scenes look at the drafting process of their stories; the interviews with genre luminaries such as John Connelly, Stephen King, and Charlene Harris. Suffice it to say, I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. For anyone looking to create–or better appreciate–works of horror, Where Nightmares Come From is an absolute dream come true.

Bridge to Pinhead

Where had Kirsty gone after those traumatic encounters with Cenobitedom in her father’s house and in the Channard Institute? Would she have put it behind her and moved on, or would she have declined into incurable insanity? Where, when, and how would Pinhead choose to return to demand she settle her bets?
–Doug Bradley, Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor

Bradley’s questions receive long-awaited answer in the just-released Hellraiser: The Toll (written by Mark Alan Miller; story by Clive Barker). The book furnishes a key piece to the narrative puzzle, as it both hearkens back to the events of the first two Hellraiser films and forms a prequel to Barker’s Pinhead send-off, The Scarlet Gospels.

No doubt there is a canonical feel to the proceedings here; the prologue portrait of Devil’s Island could have been sketched by Barker’s own talented hand. The biggest factor, however, is the reintroduction of the character of Kirsty (the daughter of Rory Cotton in Hellraiser and Hellbound, not the infatuated coworker from Barker’s The Hellbound Heart novella). Readers learn that, three decades later, Kirsty is still haunted by her run-in with the Cenobites on Lodovico Street and in the infernal Wastes, still hunted by the demonic forces infiltrating the everyday world. But while the events of her past have taken a decided toll on her, they have not served as a death knell; Kirsty is as feisty and resilient as ever (just ask the guy she nails between the eyes with a hammer).

Perhaps because of Kirsty’s perennial fugitive status, the narrative does have somewhat of a rushed quality. Weakly-developed minor characters fade in and out, appearing to have little purpose beyond prompting Kirsty along in her adventure. The plot pattern also seems to replicate that of later film entries in the Hellraiser series, where various events unfold as frustrating preamble until Pinhead (or “The Cold Man,” as Kirsty considers him here) is finally brought onscreen in the last act. The climactic showdown between Kirsty and her Cenobite nemesis, though, easily surpasses such parallel scenes in the later films. Readers are granted an in-depth look at Pinhead (albeit from Kirsty’s perspective), as Miller details the “silvery glint” in his black eyes, containing “only the sentimnent of decay,” and the Hell Priest’s “carrion breath stinking worse than the shit-stained soil.” Kirsty also gleans a bit of Pinhead’s existential state, his underworld-weariness that has rendered him “an angry husk of rage and sorrows.” All this is not to say that Pinhead has lost his sinister Cenobite mojo; he can still sling such barbed lines as “And if He weeps for your pain, why not heal it? […] If He wishes you were not so weak and easily tempted, why not give you strength? If He hears your cries, why is He silent?”

Admittedly, many readers might come to feel that Pinhead’s grand designs for Kirsty are too easily defied here. His parting promise to come after Kirsty once more does resonate as an empty threat, knowing the figure’s eventual fate in The Scarlet Gospels. Nonetheless, Kirsty does have some unfinished business, as the close of the narrative latches onto a loose thread from the opening of that novel.

A final word of warning: this reads like a pumped-up short story, not a novella of Hellbound Heart proportions. It’s $40 hardcover price is thus a bit steep for a non-collector; the $2.99 ebook version is my recommended choice. For those fans of the Hellraiser mythos originally created–and more recently expanded–by Barker, though, The Toll is well worth paying.

 

Hill of the King: A Review of Strange Weather

Stephen King (Different Seasons; Four Past Midnight) isn’t the only horror writer to publish thematically-grouped novella quartets (cf. Charles Grant’s Dialing the Wind; The Black Carousel), but he is undoubtedly the most popular. Joe Hill, though, might soon threaten his father’s reign, as evidenced by his latest collection Strange Weather.

The opening novella, “Snapshot,” appears to pick up right where the finale of Four Past Midnight left off. Much like “The Sun Dog,” Hill’s story deals with a young protagonist’s encounter with a paranormal camera, which in this case doesn’t capture moments but actually erases the subject’s memories. This alien technology from another reality could have come straight from the Dark Tower multiverse. A coming-of-age tale, “Snapshot” even references Stand By Me (not coincidentally, Will Wheaton narrates the audio version of the novella), but such invocation only throws the loneliness and “adolescent sadness” of the obese thirteen-year-old Michael Figlione into starker contrast. The narrative’s mysterious and perfectly nasty villain, the Phoenician, is perhaps vanquished too easily and too early on, but the long anticlimax does a fine job of establishing the American Gothic elements of the figure’s photographic endeavors (which trace back to a heinous act of domestic violence). For all its fantastic elements, “Snapshot” reminds us of the natural ravages of senescence; it is a haunting tale that won’t fade from consciousness anytime soon.

“Loaded” is the longest of the four pieces collected here, and the most frighteningly realistic (arguably that Hill has ever written). Mall security guard Randall Kellaway is hailed as a hero when he stops a potential mass shooting, but the circumstances of his intervention set off a chain reaction of events that culminates in an explosive climax. Hill makes poignant points about racism and gun violence, but without ever climbing up onto a soapbox. With its large cast of diverse characters whose storylines inevitably intersect, “Loaded” forms the author’s literary equivalent of Crash, and is just as award-worthy.

In “Aloft,” a parachuting mishap renders Aubrey Griffin a “Robinson Crusoe of the sky”–stranded in cumulonimbic limbo, on a sentient and wondrously protean cloud island. The scenario is a prime example of the soaring flights of fancy Hill is so apt to produce, and allows him to flex his writing muscles via passages of astonishing description (e.g. “Ohio lay beneath him, an almost perfectly flat expanse of variegated squares in shades of emerald, wheat, richest brown, palest amber. […] Ruler-straight ribbons of blacktop bisected the fields below. A red pickup slid along one of these black threads like a bright steel bead on an abacus.”). “Aloft” is at once humorous and profoundly human (in its meditation on unrequited–and also unrecognized–love). With its glimpses of both the exhilaratingly beautiful and the awful (the unworldly flying object doesn’t lack a Lovecraftian aspect), the narrative epitomizes the sublime. This one reads like a lost masterpiece from the glory days of Amazing Stories.

Fans of Hill’s last novel, The Fireman, will revel in “Nails,” a post-apocalyptic epic condensed into a novella. The weather is at its strangest here, as crystalline slivers rain devastatingly from the sky. This deadly downpour, though, doesn’t represent some latter-day Biblical plague, isn’t presented as meteorologically-themed magic realism. Instead, the tale posits an act of terrorism that is made to sound terrifyingly plausible. Hill has a grand time describing the bloody mayhem created by the unnatural hail, but for all the chaos that ensues, it is order that ultimately impresses most. The narrative is as tightly plotted as a murder mystery (which in a certain sense it is), where even the smallest and seemingly most incidental detail proves integral. Heart-pounding and heartbreaking, filled with stunning set pieces and touching character moments, “Nails” needs to be made into a feature film quicker than a wicked thunderstorm rolls in.

While its structure recalls the work of Stephen King, this book also testifies to what a unique and incredible talent Joe Hill is. The local forecast for the reader of Strange Weather: captivation, with unremitting entertainment.

Five for Frightening, Part Five

Last (belated) stop on the Halloween Carnival review circuit…

Volume 5 opens with a story from the owner of Cemetery Dance Publications himself, Richard Chizmar. “Devil’s Night” (first published in 1996, and previously reprinted in 2012 as a Halloween Short Story ebook) is a fine piece of night-before-Halloween noir: a tale of infidelity and murder, told by an everyman narrator (a high school English teacher) who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the best dark-crime fiction, “Devil’s Night” (which tellingly surnames one of its characters “Cain“) shines because of the voice recounting the vice and violence.

Lisa Tuttle’s “The Last Dare” is slow to unfold, but ultimately proves an unsettling piece of quiet horror (concerning a seemingly witch-haunted “tower house”). The employment of a grandmother protagonist here makes for a fresh variation on the traditional Halloween tale.

In “The Halloween Bleed (A Dr. Sibley Curiosity),” Norman Prentiss offers an interesting premise: that Halloween’s darkly magical influence can carry over to other days. While engaging in its depiction of sorcerous intrigue, the story simultaneously distances the reader because it feels like a snippet from a larger narrative tapestry (admission: I have not read any of Prentiss’s other tales of the sinister academic Bennet Sibley).

To my surprise, Kevin Quigley’ “Swing” deals not with some haunted piece of playground equipment but with swing music. Credit might have been due for taking an unusual angle onto the holiday theme, except that Halloween is only touched upon obliquely here. Featuring an uncertain narrator who poses questions to the very end, this one is a bit of a tedious read.

Closing out the volume and the series is another tale mixing music (in this case, jazz) and Halloween mayhem: Peter Straub’s 1994 novella “Pork Pie Hat” (first published in Murder for Halloweenand also included in Cemetery Dance’s classic anthology October Dreams). Straub, though, produces much more elegant prose than Quigley, and his tale grips the reader with its nested narratives, its atmospheric trek into the backwoods of the racially-tense Deep South (shades of Harper Lee), and its element of mystery that is maintained right up until the final paragraphs. “Pork Pie Hat” is an immaculately crafted tale, filled with haunting images and striking lines, such as the following proclamation by the eponymous musician: “Most people will tell you growing up means you stop believing in Halloween things–I’m telling you the reverse. You start to grow up when you understand that the stuff that scares you is part of the air you breathe.”

With three middling stories sandwiched between two stellar (yet familiar) reprints, Halloween Carnival Volume 5 is a must-have only for the series completist.

Five For Frightening, Part Four

Catching up with my reviews of Cemetery Dance’s seasonal anthology series, Halloween Carnival

In the fourth volume’s opener, “The Mannequin Challenge” by Kealan Patrick Burke, a curmudgeonly coworker reluctantly attends an office Halloween party, only to discover the expected revelers all frozen in lifeless pose. The squirming reader, though, will be anything but unmoved after witnessing what unfolds from this scene of strange stasis.

Unsurprisingly, considering that Ray Garton is the author, “Across the Tracks” offers the most adult content in the ebook. A trio of trick-or-treaters encounter not only foul-mouthed and sexually-perverse bullies, but also a bizarre scene of naked paganism. Garton’s transgressive story also appropriately defies neat moral wrap-up, ending instead with a nasty twist.

Bev Vincent channels Bradbury in “The Halloween Tree,” but the oaken totem of the title proves much darker than the pumpkin-lit specimen famously spied by Pipkin’s friends. I have always been a fan of dead/creepy-looking trees in nature and literature, and the one featured here is positively rotten to the core.

In “Pumpkin Eater,” C.A. Suleiman serves up a slice of E.C. Comics-style comeuppance. While fairly predictable in its plotting, the tale is enriched by its sardonic tone and the unfriendly banter of a husband and wife on the verge of a deadly parting. Good, mean fun.

The volume’s lone reprint, Paul Melniczek’s novella “When the Leaves Fall,” opens in Bradburyesque fashion: a pair of young, mildly-mischievous Halloween lovers have their innocence tested by an encounter with something wicked in their small town. There’s a strong American Gothic vibe to the piece, with its sinister farm setting and townspeople characters plagued by a terrible secret. The problem is, the dark forces at work are kept in the shadows for far too long; suspense is counteracted as the plot drags on and the first-person narration grows overwrought (frequently lapsing into the melodramatic rhetoric of some Lovecraftian stumbler upon unnameable horrors).

Comprising half the book’s length, the underwhelming concluding novella feels like filler. This editorial misstep unfortunately renders the fourth leg of Halloween Carnival‘s October-long journey rather pedestrian.

 

In the Awesome October: A Review of Haunted Nights

In Haunted Nights, editors Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton hand out a wealth of holiday treats–sixteen assorted pieces, with not one stale Milk Dud in the mix.

Seanan McGuire leads off with “With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfbane Seeds,” a tale as surprising as it is superbly atmospheric. Yes, it centers on a looming manse “that looked like it belonged in a gothic romance,” but this is no ordinary haunted house (for one, it hasn’t fallen into disrepair despite being abandoned for decades), and its ghost has a most unusual effect on those it encounters. There is also an intriguing American Gothic vibe, as the story reflects on the town’s ongoing relationship with the Holston house. Sounding themes of teenage angst, alienation and loneliness, and the desperate search for friendship, the narrative offers much more than standard fright fare; it’s arguably the best haunted-house story since Glen Hirshberg’s “Struwwelpeter.”

Another autumn icon that’s strongly represented in Haunted Nights is the jack-o’-lantern. In fact, the anthology features two separate stories that focus on the folkloric character of Stingy Jack–Joanna Parypinski’s “Wick’s End” and Pat Cadigan’s “Jack” (co-editor Morton covered the same subject herself in 2012’s “The Legend of Halloween Jack“). While both pieces traverse similar ground, they follow distinctive paths, presenting markedly different tones and perspectives (Parypinski’s piece is narrated by Stingy Jack himself, Cadigan’s by a witchy equivalent of a beat cop determined to bust up the eponymous character’s con game). In their ultimate diversity, these two tales are emblematic of the overall anthology, which impresses with its variegated nature. Not just Halloween but a host of October holidays are highlighted here, from Devil’s Night to Dia de los Muertos, Seelenwoche to Nos Galan Gaeaf. The tales also range from the modern-day (such as S.P. Miskowski’s “We’re Never Iniviting Amber Again,” where an adult party gathering takes a ghoulish turn) to the historical (Elise Forier Edie’s “All Through the Night,” set in squalid old New York, whose Five Points appear to be the home of both bad sorts and Good Folk).

The anthology undoubtedly fulfills its titular promise with its inclusion of several nightmarish works that linger in the reader’s mind. Garth Nix’s incredibly creepy “The Seventeen-Year Itch” concerns a self-mutilated insane-asylum patient with a maddening urge to scratch at his own chest–a compulsion that also becomes unbearable to all those around him every seventeen years on Halloween night. In “Witch Hazel,” Jeffrey Ford lures readers into the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, whose dark woods are perhaps plagued by an agent born of something much more malefic than Mother Nature. John Langan imports postmodernism into the October Country in “Lost in the Dark,” the title of a heralded film that disturbingly blurs the line between dark fantasy and documentary realism. With its gripping plot, unnerving setting (deep within an abandoned mine) and terrifying antagonist (“Bad Agatha”), Langan’s novella begs for its own filmic adaption. If not in the local multiplex, expect to find “Lost in the Dark” coming soon to various Best of the Year collections.

I have always been especially fond of Halloween science fiction, and the last story here, “The First Lunar Halloween” by John R. Little, earns a place alongside such esteemed predecessors such as Al Sarrantonio’s “Red Eve” and Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still.” Little’s post-planetary-disaster tale casts a slanted light on earthly holiday traditions, while staging its own irrefutably spooky celebration (where Aliens form a dreadful presence without ever emerging front and center). The story closes on a downbeat note, with the protagonist’s disavowal of Halloween, but the reader of Haunted Nights will be left expressing a diametrically-opposed sentiment. This amazing anthology, stocked with names both familiar and fresh, proves that the autumnal tale is anything but played out at this point. Here’s hoping that the Horror Writers Association puts out a casting call once again, and the Morton and Datlow Pandemonium Show returns with a whole new set of attractions next Halloween season.

Five for Frightening, Part Three

Continuing the weekly review of Cemetery Dance’s ebook anthology series, Halloween Carnival

Kelley Armstrong’s “The Way Lost” leads off the third volume with some American Gothic-style weirdness: every Halloween, one child disappears in the nearby woods, but his/her loss appears to create little stir within the small town of Franklin. The story skillfully blurs the line between the natural and the supernatural, yet lingers too long after its climactic plot twist.

In “La Calavera,” Kate Maruyama shifts to a Hollywood locale and the holiday setting of Dia de los Muertos. Otherwise, though, this piece works very similarly to Armstrong’s in terms of narration and plot twist, and makes for a curious placement back-to-back with “The Way Lost.”

Reminiscent of Norman Partridge’s Halloween classic Dark Harvest, Michael McBride’s “The Devil’s Due” delves into deadly holiday ritual in an isolated (and oddly prosperous) town. The bogey here is not as front-and-center as Partridge’s October Boy, but haunts even in absence: the scene inside its unoccupied (yet hardly empty) mountain lair is chilling in more ways than one.

The frazzled protagonist of Taylor Grant’s “A Thousand Rooms of Darkness” is plagued by samhainophobia and believes she is hunted by a murderous demon that continuously and ominously intones “I’m coming for you.” There’s lots of Halloween creepiness to this narrative, which reads like the literary equivalent of an episode of Boris Karloff’s Thriller series, and features a pair of huge twists worthy of Tales from the Crypt.

Greg Chapman’s 2013 novella “The Last Night of October” is reprinted as the volume’s  concluding shocker. An elderly curmudgeon who dreads trick-or-treaters experiences new depths of terror when a menacing, blood-gushing child in a Frankenstein mask invades his home. For all the suspense of its setup, though, the story takes a long time to unfold, and is occasionally marred but some awkward imagery (e.g. “like a light-bulb at death’s door”).

While this third volume of Halloween Carnival is a mixed bag, it does contain a few treats guaranteed to satisfy.

Five for Frightening, Part Two

In the second volume in Cemetery Dance’s October series of mini-anthologies, a pair of classic novellas bracket three original stories.

Simply put, Glen Hirshberg’s “Mr Dark’s Carnival” (originally published in 2000) is one of the top five Halloween tales ever written. In this Bradburian masterpiece, the scares are as plentiful and carefully plotted as those found in the legendary Montana attraction of the title. Hirshberg writes with such dark flair, and creates such a haunting atmosphere, the result is a narrative that proves no less rewarding upon rereading (with the killer climactic reveal already in mind).

Lee Thomas invokes Poe in “The Facts in the Case of My Sister,” a story of the unforeseen consequences of an adolescent magician’s attempt to hypnotize his younger sister. But this is no unoriginal rehash; just when the reader thinks s/he knows where this one is headed, the plot twists in unexpected directions (including a terrific scene at an October carnival) until reaching a gut-punch of a conclusion.

There’s a stock quality to Holly Newstein’s “Mischief Night”: characters such as a raging alcoholic and a juvenile delinquent who revels in the delivery of a flaming bag of dog-poop to a doorstep. Still, Newstein transcends the hackneyed, as a moment of epiphany precedes an ironic and tragic turn, and as the ending sounds a surprisingly redemptive note.

Halloween gets hard-boiled in Del James’s “The Ghost Maker,” a story told by a mobster’s button man. The narrator certainly has the tough-guy vernacular and attitude down pat (including one brilliantly off-color simile that I won’t repeat here), but strong voice can’t cover up for a somewhat pedestrian plot that feels contrived in its use of month’s-end masquerade.

“The Pumpkin Boy” (first published in 2005) forms part of Al Sarrantonio’s Orangefield Cycle, but holds up fine as a stand-alone tale. Orangefield, the self-proclaimed Pumpkin Capital of the World, is often a place where “weird shit” happens (to borrow the phrase of grizzled detective Bill Grant)–in this case, an abduction of a child by a jack-o’-lantern-skulled robot. Sarrantonio scripts a compelling narrative filled with odd elements that ultimately tie together in convincing fashion.

Halloween Carnival–Volume Two offers an entertaining ride, and is worth owning for the Hirshberg and Sarrantonio reprints alone.