Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween Countdown Day 28: The Halloween Read Pile

So every year I make a read-pile of spooky books that I start dipping into in September and try to have finished by Halloween. Come November 1st I no longer have any interest in Halloween for a while. I have to put a little bit of distance between myself and the darker side of everything for a while... BUT for the two months BEFORE that magical day, I love to completely immerse myself in the spirit of Halloween, and there is no better way to do this then to read some Halloween-y books. I want to walk you through the pile of books I worked my way through this season (I'm technically not done, but I don't think I'll have the opportunity to share the rest before Halloween gets here. So let's take a look at what I've read, and I'll give you the highlights. 

The first book I read to get in the Halloween spirit was Alabaster: Pale Horse a collection of short stories by Caitlin R. Kiernan. All of the stories feature Dandy Flammarion, a 16 year old albino girl who has an angel guiding her through the deep south, hunting monsters. Dancy faces off against ghouls, demons, wizards, lycanthropes, and other, less-defined creatures and monsters. Each story has a drawling, dusty southern feel to it, and a kind of creepy charm that I desperately wanted to find in shows like "True Blood" (like if the opener to that show had actually lived up to even a little bit of its promise). Funny thing is, a side character from this book actually shows up in one of Kiernan's short stories in another anthology I'll be talking about a little later. Dancy is a likable protagonist and one you can sympathize with, as her circumstances are all too frail and all too human. The stories are told in opposite order, the last story first, the first story last, whuch actually makes for a very interesting read as we piece things together Memento-style. This is a book worth checking out for sure, and it was a great way to kick off the season.

The next book I read, Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge is a distinctly Halloween-themed book. It's a story involving a hunt on Halloween night for the October Boy, an animated pumpkin-headed creature that has to reach the church in the center of town before one of the town's teenaged sons catches and kills him. It is a story full of twists and turns and classic horror-story moments, and refreshing, awesome, not-so-classic ones. I first encountered Partridge's writing in a short story anthology called simply Halloween edited by Paula Guran, which I read as a part of last year's read pile. The story "Three Doors" was good enough that I wanted to seek out more of Partridge's Halloween-themed writing. This did NOT disappoint. 

For my third book, I fell back on an old classic. I had never actually read the entirety of Stephen King's Cycle of the Werewolf and since finding a copy at Goodwill and having it for a while, I decided this would be the season to finally get the whole story. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this was less a novel and more of an illustrated collection of vignettes detailing a series of werewolf victims over the course of 12 months. Each victim is a sort of self-contained short story and each one ties together to form a whole. My ONE complaint with the book is the fact that Berni Wrightson's AMAZING illustrations tend to spoil the events of each piece. It would have been better if each piece ended with the picture, instead of having them mixed in. Even though this tale takes place over the course of the entire year, it has a distinctly Halloween vibe to it that helped get me in the mood.

One of my few disappointing reads was this collection, Fine Frights: Stories that Scared Me compiled by Ramsey Campbell, of stories that supposedly scared him. I have read a collection of Campbell's own short horror, and he has a distinct Lovecraft-meets-Barker feel that I really dig. None of the stories in this collection really got under my skin the way I had hoped they would. I did like a handful of the stories, like "The Greater Festival of Masks" by Thomas Ligotti, "Cutting Down" by Bob Shaw, and "the Horror at Chilton Castle", which is a story I already own in an anthology of Joseph Payne Brennon's short horror The Shapes of Midnight. Beyond those, there is not much to offer in this book, in my opinion.

On the other hand, The Little Big Book of Thrills and Chills is a visual and literary treat to read. This was another Goodwill find. It includes such classics as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving, "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe, "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs, "The Magic Shop" by H.G. Wells, the Gollum/Riddle Game excerpt from Tolkien's The Hobbit, as well as fairy tales, excerpts from other books, commentary on several myths and legends surrounding Halloween. It includes recipes and supposed spells you can cast to ward off bad luck, or to tell the future. It is full of classic Halloween imagery and artwork to set the tone. It was a book that introduced me to a lot of classic literature that I might not have made myself read otherwise, and I definitely enjoyed it thoroughly.

One of the two best reads of this season was this collection. I've mentioned it a couple of times on the blog already, but I can't stress this enough: There were almost NO duds in this collection. There were maybe one or two that affected me slightly less than the others, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Scream Along With Me is a book I feel like I can place on a pedestal next to books like Bradbury's October Country and the aforementioned Shapes of Midnight. Some stand-out stories include "It" by Theodore Sturgeon, "Fishhead" by Irvin S. Cobb, "The Estuary" by Margaret St. Clair, "Master of the Hounds" by Algis Budrys, "One of the Dead" by William Wood, and "Death in the Family" by Mariam Allen deFord. Plus because the book is so old, it has a weird, musty old-book odor that hit me every time I cracked the spine to read it. Upped the creep factor b a least 10% or so. Just an awesome, AWESOME read.

And I followed that up with ANOTHER ace-in-the-hole of a great read in Gothic! another anthology, this time edited by Deborah Noyes. This is another great read pretty much all the way through. The very best stories had to be "Morgan Roemar's Boys" by Vivian Van Velde, "The Dead and the Moonstruck" by Caitlin R. Kiernan (which shares a side character in a man called the Bailiff, with the Alabaster collection mentioned above) but there were really no weak links here. If forced to choose, I would probably have cut Joan Aiken's "Lungewater" because it didn't do a whole lot for me, but the atmosphere was pretty great. And as much as I love Neil Gaiman, his story was really kind of an odd-one-out because it was pretty much a straight up parody of gothic literature than any kind of truly spooky tale... but those are fairly minor quibbles and I enjoyed both stories despite their weaknesses. So.

The next book I read was Bites edited by Lois Metzger. It wasn't a fantastic read, but it wasn't terrible either. Some of the stories felt a little too juvenile next to some of the tales, which felt a little too mature to share the same binding. But a couple of down-right creepy little stories in the collection were "Ghost Dog" by Ellen Wittlinger, and "Anasazi Breakdown" by Douglas Rees. The prize for best plot-twist has to go to "Where Wolves Never Wander" by Joshua Gee. Most of the rest of the stories in this collection are just kind of... puff. This is definitely a collection intended for a younger reading group than Gothic! was. It's not bad, but don't feel like you NEED to seek this one out.

I took a quick palate-cleanser between Bites and my next read with a couple of more graphically-inclined books. The first was Garfield in Disguise which I picked up and featured on the blog last year. But back then I had only kind of flipped through it, thinking it was pretty much a straight-adaptation of the TV special. I noticed a few differences which I highlighted back then, but upon really sitting down to read this thing, I found there were a few other nuanced little changes that I hadn't noticed before. So I actually found that I really enjoyed giving it the official read. Once that was done I immediately re-read an old favorite of mine:

Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery from Slave Labor Graphics, which details the adventures of the titular character in a series of weird steam-goth-punk-style stories. Agnes is a paranormal investigator who communicates with spirits in the city of Legerdemain. The four tales included are all written by Dave Roman, but only one of the four is also illustrated by him. There's nothing really genuinely creepy about any of the stories, which all pretty much deal with adventures concerning ghosts, maniacal, self-aware pairs of legs, subterranean societies, and zombie butlers. So pretty much the standard stuff. There is also an extensive informational guide in the back of the book detailing the characters and the world they live in a bit more in-depth. I would love to see more done with this concept and character, but since this book came out in 2007 and I haven't heard of any more being produced in the meantime... I'm not holding my breath. Still, definitely worth checking out.

Finally, I read in about an hour, the entirety of Scared Stiff by Jahnna N. Malcolm. It was a quick and to be honest, pretty genuinely creepy read. It had a distinct "Monster Squad" meets "Six Feet Under" except without the Universal Monsters and all the gratuitous sex and drug use. The story stars a brother and sister who's parents are undertakers. A friend comes over to stay the night, and mysteriously, a body shows up in the prep room after the parents have left to go to a chamber of commerce banquet. The body is not quite as "stiff" as it appears to be, and at first I was disappointed to think that there might be a mundane explanation to the whole affair, but then things go distinctly supernatural and MUCH more creepy and visceral than I thought this book would be willing to go. The descriptions of the corpse as it progresses through the book get increasingly more disturbing, as do its actions and motivations. There's some great characterization in the three main protagonists, and some fun challenges for them to overcome while trying to survive the night and rescue a few friends in peril. Ultimately, I really enjoyed the read overall, and was delightfully surprised by how real the story felt. The tone was already sort of dark, being from the perspective of a girl who lives in a funeral home, and there are several references to funerary practices that I Was surprised to see included. All in all, a chilling little read, one that most would probably pass over as "kiddie-fare".

While I'm not done with them yet, I thought I'd share the not-one-but-TWO books I am currently trying to read in the final days before THE day. The first of which is The Real Halloween: Ritual and Magic for Kids and Adults which is a distinctly Wiccan take on the holiday. It's not a great read so far, but it is packed with fun facts and pseudo-history, so I'm liking it to a point. And... 

The Ribbajack & Other Curious Yarns which is a collection by Brian Jacques of Redwall fame. I have a feeling I'm going to be ending on a bit of a low note, which is too bad, but maybe this collection will pick up a bit. The first story, the one about the monster on the cover... was... well... more comedic than anything. Not really a creepy story at all. But c'est la vie. I got some REALLY good reads in this season, so no regrets at any rate. 

And I just wanted to quickly share my bookmark and reading buddy, "Jockles" which is what my daughter used to call Jack-o'-lanterns when she was very young. "Jockles" here is a sketch I did myself a looong time ago and then started using as a bookmark. His stem almost fell off this season, so I took the precaution of "laminating" him with some packing tape. at some point along the way I thought it owuld be a good idea to give him some eyes with a hole-punch... and I sort of still think they make him look a bit menacing and creepy. I'll probably redo the hole through his stem now and run some orange twine I picked up at Target earlier this month. This has been my tried-and-true buddy through all of the books posted here today. He's been tucked into almost every single one (with the exception of Garfield, Agnes Quill, and Scared Stiff, which were all read in one sitting). Jockles is my Halloween reading wing-man.

So there you have it kids! My Halloween reading pile is a BIG part of my annual Halloween celebration. What are some of ours? In the next couple of days I'll be showing off the decorations around the house here, as well as pumpkin carving, costumes, and THE BIG NIGHT ITSELF. I'll be back soon with some Gurgling, Gasping, Gabbling Goodwill Goodies! Until then, Happy Haunting!


  1. Some interesting stuff there. I'll have to find a copy of Dark Harvest, looks pretty good!

  2. I remember you mentioning Alabaster on the Comic Book Episodes.

    You don't have to tell me how awesome Berni Wrightson's illustrations are, I have quite a collection of his work in my inspiration files. Pity he wasn't involved with the film adaptation, Silver Bullet, although it did star national treasure Gary Busey, so there is that.

    Garfield in Disguise, I remember having this as a kid. Good call!


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