Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Guest Review by Teos- Halloween Horrors by Alan Ryan

Teos is back! This review also appears on The End of Summer. 


Alan Ryan’s 1986 anthology, Halloween Horrors, is probably the best short story collection out there concerning our favorite dark day of the year. An author of the macabre himself (some novels being Dead White and Cast a Cold Eye), Ryan knew just which authors to solicit for his celebration of All Hallow’s Eve. Luckily, the stories aren’t just creepy, but they re-imagine both the many myths of Halloween and the ambiance of autumn—which any proper Halloween story should do. My biggest annoyance with modern Halloween anthologies is the willingness for authors and editors to just write a horror story, set it on October 31st, and call it a day. Such a thing is entirely lazy—a killer or ghost on the loose on Halloween is no different from one loose on Christmas. The myths of Halloween are literally waiting to be plucked and re-imagined for proper literal celebrations. Ryan's collection aptly does so, with tremendous results.

“He'll Come Knocking at Your Door” by Robert R. McCammon is an interesting choice to begin the collection, as it is the most fantastic and unusual. Alternating between creepy and morbidly funny, a man named Dan, who is a brand new citizen of a small town, is invited to a Halloween meeting at a neighbor’s house. At first expecting a brief Halloween get-together, he is shocked to hear an itinerary being read out loud – more specifically, a list of demands – that each person present at the party is responsible for placing outside their front door that same night…items to appease the dark, mysterious figure who awards the town with good luck and good harvest during the year. Most of the items appear to be innocuous – an old sweater, a model boat someone had assembled – but when Dan is told he must offer this figure the first joint of his young daughter’s finger, he leaves in a huff, thinking it was a joke gone too far. How very wrong he is. "He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door" is trick-or-treating at its most deviant and dangerous. And not only that, but it harkens back to the times in which food and animals were offered and effigies were burned in order to appease the Celts' Pagan gods of harvest. In the story, you’ve got two choices:  appease the figure, or don’t, but if you don’t…he’ll come knocking.

In the mini introduction to “Eyes,” editor Ryan explains that for this story by Charles Grant, he wanted something “nasty.” Well, he asked for it, and he got it. Ron, the story's pro(an?)tagonist, is an angry and haunted man, whose son is recently deceased. The accidental death of the son, who had suffered from mental deficiencies, is the catalyst for Ron's horrifying Halloween night, as his son returns every October to punish his father. And all during this day, when Ron knows his son’s revisitation is inevitable, sets of eyes hover everywhere in the darkness and judge him with their orange orbs of light. Why eyes? You'll have to read this haunting story for yourself.  Grant uses short but very blunt sentences to tell his story, much to great effect. It just might be the darkest and perhaps angriest in the collection, but it's also filled with immense regret, mourning, and sadness. The innocence of the son is enough to bring tears to your eyes—and that’s saying something for a story with an ending as “nasty” as this one.

“The Nixon Mask” by Whitley Strieber might be the only dud, though to be fair, it may have been a bit more politically relevant in 1986. The legendary paranoia of President Richard Nixon is brought to its near breaking point as trick-or-treaters come to the White House begging for candy. President Nixon attempts to keep his cool, but the suspicion that these costumed kids want more than just candy begins to mount until it becomes unbearable. Nixon sweats and mumbles and suffers abject terror. If it's supposed to be funny, I don't really get it, and if Strieber was going for humor, it's a joke that lasts too long. The concept of the story was an interesting idea, but it doesn’t quite feel it belongs in this collection, which is otherwise straightforward and more outwardly horrific.

Peter Tremayne’s “The Samhain Feis” resurrects the past in a big way by setting the story where Halloween all began: Ireland. Katy has escaped her abusive and hurtful husband with her young son, Mike, and high-tails it for a week to a small, remote village in Ireland. It’s there she meets an older gentleman named Flaherty, who warns her of the time of year that is fast approaching: Samhain, aka Halloween—not one about trick-or-treaters and costumes, but pure, undeniable evil. Katy laughs off these stories, just happy to be away from her husband, but when Mike begins to spend all his time with an imaginary friend named Se├ín Rua – a name that sends Flaherty into a paranoid frenzy – and when Mike's physical appearance seems to gradually change, Katy begins to believe that maybe the stories are real after all. Especially when the evil follows her home. “The Samhain Feis” successfully recalls the origins of Halloween, even setting the story right where it all began. The characters and descriptions of Ireland are very genuine and realistic (courtesy of its author, who spent time living there while working at a newspaper). And it certainly helps that it, too, ends with a creepy shock.

In “Trickster,” by Steve Rasnic Tem, Greg mourns his deceased brother, Alex, whose memory comes alive every Halloween. The story alternates between the present, in which Greg believes he is catching glimpses of Alex moving in between the rowdy crowds of San Francisco during a Halloween celebration, and the past, where random recollections of Alex’s pranks – becoming increasingly morbid – are remembered. Greg pursues his dead brother more and more persistently until…what? Is the Halloween festival bringing back memories of his dead brother, or has he really come back from the dead – complete with clown costume and mask – to say hello? While the whole story is intriguing and a quick read, the more interesting parts of it (for me, anyway) are when Alex’s pranks are broken down and explained in graphic detail. What Greg remembers as harmless and silly are actually quite graphic, and it becomes a game of “Can Alex top himself?” as each prank is recalled. If I had a brother whose "pranks" consisted of pretending to stab a baby to death – complete with bloody knife and decimated doll – I'd start to wonder if there were somethingseriously wrong with him.

Michael McDowell’s “Miss Mack” doesn’t really kick into horror gear until the last few pages. What starts off with the burgeoning of a rather unusual friendship between two schoolteachers, Miss Mack and Miss Faulk, soon becomes a tale of spite, revenge, and…well, it’s hard to say. Unrequited love is definitely at play here in the form of a love triangle (and to what extent the two school teachers love each other is left completely ambiguous), and it impacts the resolution to the story, which doesn’t end so well for one of our characters. “Miss Mack” is a different beast from the rest of the stories in that, for this one particular character, he/she has no idea what has happened to them. There are no inklings, no motives, and no clues as to if he/she has done something to deserve what’s taken place. The other characters in the other stories are flawed in some way, and through either their actions or inactions, have set things in motion, if not downright deserved the horrid thing that’s happened to them. But for the character in “Miss Mack,” you can’t help but sympathize with them, as they truly and utterly did not deserve the fate they received.

In Guy N. Smith’s “Hollow Eyes,” a father catches his daughter in a rather…er…uncompromising position with the boy she has been seeing—and the boy that he detests with nearly every of his fibers. A chase ensues, leading him (with a gun in his pocket) to a neighborhood bonfire. It is there that his momentary hatred of his daughter’s boyfriend is forgotten as he gasps at the horrid sight hanging just before him from a tree branch. And he soon realizes that he’s in a lot bigger trouble than he ever could have imagined. “Hollow Eyes” feels more like a nightmare than anything else—fragments of thoughts cobbled together from hazy memories and reiterated quickly almost as if the story's teller were working against an imminent deadline. There are lapses in logic that feel nearly several pages long, as if you’d missed one piece of information that explained why the father is doing the things that he is doing, why he detests her daughter's boyfriend so much, and why is it he's gone so mad so quickly...but that works as a strength to the story. You’re barely just figuring out what the hell is up with Point A when Point B is already showing up to muddy the waters.  It’s probably the most abstract story in Halloween Horrors and one that is not afraid to get its hands dirty—and bloody.

If you can allow all the suspension of disbelief in the world, then editor Alan Ryan’s own contribution, “The Halloween House,” is fun and rewarding. What starts off as a typical haunted house story ends as anything but, and four high school kids learn the hard way that Halloween isn’t just a holiday, but a living thing that literally surrounds them. “The Halloween House” has a charming beginning, in which Dale forgoes all common sense in order to try and impress Colleen, a girl with whom he is very much infatuated. The first few pages’ worth of descriptions can be tedious, but the story soon moves at a clip, ending in a twist that would normally be heavily forecasted midway through the story if the twist itself weren’t so completely absurd (in every way that’s good, that is).

"The Three Faces of the Night" by Craig Shaw Gardner is told in three time periods: the past, the immediate past, and the present, which serve as interludes between each jump in time. The first act – the past – is fairly straight forward, and tells of a young boy named Colin who gets into random mischief on Halloween night, leading him to the house of a man the town's children have dubbed Creep Crawford. A man Colin always just assumed to be crazy turns out to be more than that...much more. After a brief interlude, we jump a bit more in time to a college-aged Colin as he attends a Halloween party, where a siren named Lenore shows him more than his fair share of attention...but because she has a motive. (Don't they all?) The story begins horrifically, continues with something nearly erotically charged and surreal, and ends so ambiguously that you can only begin to put together what exactly has transpired. Gardner's description as the dangerous and sexy Lenore more than adequately paints her as a femme fatale who is not to be trusted...but then again, neither is Colin. If any story in this collection will leave you scratching your head at its conclusion, "Three Faces of the Night" would definitely be the one.
Bill Pronzini's "The Pumpkin" is a nightmarish little story about an award-winning pumpkin farmer who yearns to take home the ribbon again in the coming year's Pumpkin Festival. A ghastly discovery in the corner of his field, however, leaves the farmer's wife shaken, and a farmhand repeatedly making signs of the cross. Together, they beg him to leave the pumpkin right where it is, for to unearth it would be to unleash an ancient evil the world has never known. The farmer laughs at their request, but agrees anyway, figuring why bother otherwise? That is until he fails to bring home that year's prize at the Pumpkin Festival. His anger leads to boozing, which leads him to make some rather foolish decisions...and go back on his word. And carnage ensues. There's not much to say about "The Pumpkin" other than it's an effective and pulpy little yarn that manages not only to give you the creeps in that innocent and harmless sort of way, but also recall the feeling and mood of Halloween that I'm sure we all look back on and yearn for in some way every year. The descriptions of small-town festivities and the all-around blanket of autumn-tinged foliage is a nice pleasant interlude to the horror that ends the story...and perhaps even existence as we know it. Not bad for a pumpkin!
 
Much like Halloween itself, "Lover in the Wildwood" by Frank Belknap Long is a reflection on death. It is told from the point of view of Nurse Helen, tasked with looking over a nearly invalid old woman named Kathy in a nursing home. Kathy is confined to a wheelchair, and her claims of meeting up with her lover of many years past at first falls on deaf ears. After all, many things can be heard throughout the halls of nursing homes, some coming from those with dementia. So when Kathy begs and pleads Nurse Helen to take her to a spot in the woods so she can use the power of Halloween to see her long-dead lover after so many years, Nurse Helen obliges, simply because she feels to get the old woman outside would do her some good. But is Kathy's lover really waiting for her in the woods? Will October 31st make it possible for the couple – separated by death – to once again embrace? "Lover in the Wildwood" is not at all horrific, and of course that's fine. While Halloween is known for its more lurid myths and traditions, it's also a time to remember those of our loved ones that are no longer with us. It's a time to be thankful for life just as much as it is to dress up as monsters and murders. It's a time to remember our lost loves and appreciate having known them, regardless of how that union may have ended. In that regard, "Lover in the Wildwood" is a sweet diversion before heading back into the darkness. Speaking of...

As we approach the end of this collection, Ramsey Campbell's "Apples" pops up to remind us that there is no such thing as a harmless prank on Halloween. Harry and his friends, Colin and Andrew, think it's fun and funny to sneak into Mr. Gray's yard and steal apples off his tree—something he's intent on guarding, as he's gone as far as placing broken glass beneath the hedges that line his property. The kids won't be deterred, however, and they hop the fence to help themselves to the old coot's apple tree. In a surprise move, Mr. Gray bursts from his house with hedge trimmers and chases them, but soon suffers a mortal heart attack in the process. The kids flee and his body is soon removed...but if he's dead, why does Harry see a face appear in the window of Mr. Gray's house? Why does the rotten stench of apples seem to follow him everywhere he goes? "Apples" ends in a very creepy, if not too-cleanly-concluded fashion, and the moral of the story remains dangerously clear: don't steal apples from crazy old men.

And the book, as they say, ends with a bang. The name “Robert Bloch” should be ingrained in your memory, even if you’ve never actually read his works – namely Psycho, which would go on to inspire perhaps the greatest horror film of all time (and kick-start the slasher movement). Made up of little vignettes featuring neighborhood parents, the story’s concept is difficult to grasp at first until you realize the purpose behind constantly jumping from household to household – each of them with a child late coming home from trick-or-treating. Very late. And within one of these households, something very sinister and unnatural is unfolding under the dark Halloween sky. “Pranks" is the eeriest story in the collection, and boasts the best ending. It's one that doesn't even become inherently creepy until the rapid final pages, in which you begin to play catch up and realize just what's going on. And it's an ending you will reread over and over, finding it so completely unbelievable that you'll feel the need to make sure what you've read isn't just your mind playing tricks on you. Or pranks.

Halloween Horrors, sadly, has been out of print for the last several years, but keeping an eye on Amazon or Goodreads from time to time might reward your diligence. Here's hoping the genre- and Halloween-loving Cemetery Dance will resurrect this tome for another generation to pour over every October. The stories, though going on thirty years old, still pack a mean punch, and many of them – especially "Eyes" – will leave you feeling haunted long after you finish the collection's last page and set it down until Halloween returns the following year.

3 comments:

  1. How have I never heard of this anthology before? I really want to pick up a copy now! Great review, thanks :)

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  2. Another great Halloween read that sounds fantastic, and which would definately add to that spooky evening if read under torchlight! Thank you for a brilliant review of an ideal book to read next month. x

    ReplyDelete
  3. Do you review Kindle books? I have published some on Amazon at http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Alan+Toner

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Thanks for taking time to read this!
Comments are much loved.
Nina xxx

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