The week leading up to Halloween means sensory overload for horror fans. The cable channels are full of horror movie marathons, the networks are running Halloween-themed episodes of their regular series and dusting off trusted nuggets like It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! Stores are bedecked with costumes, cobwebs and candy, and nondescript houses on quiet neighborhood streets have ghosts hanging in their trees and graveyards springing from their well-manicured lawns.
In other words, it's the most wonderful time of the year.
We all have our ways we celebrate; for me, I love to crack open a good book, something that really captures the essence of the season. It's a hard thing to get right on the page, but that doesn't stop legions of authors from giving it a shot. A few even get it right. For this, my last article before Halloween, I'd like to share a few of my favorites with you.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
First published in 1820, Washington Irving's short tale is one of our earliest horror stories, and has endured today as a classic chiller. It's the story of the unfortunately-named Ichabod Crane, a schoolmaster in the tiny Hudson River village of Tarry Town. Ichabod incurs the wrath of village brute Brom Bones when the two compete for the affections of a lovely young woman named Katrina. Wandering home after a party, Ichabod also incurs the wrath of the Headless Horseman, a local legend that comes to startling life along a somber forest path.
Irving's tale is about far more than the Horseman and poor, unfortunate Ichabod; it's about the power of legend and storytelling. Who among us hasn't heard, read or watched a good ghost story or scary movie and found ourselves replaying it later – usually when we are alone, and the house is dark and quiet. In those times the power of the story grows, and it becomes harder to dismiss it as fiction. On the night relayed in Irving's tale, it became impossible for Ichabod to dismiss. Hopefully, we'll all fare a little better as we surround ourselves with ghosts this season.
The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
When you're reading a Ray Bradbury story, you can practically feel the dead leaves crunching beneath your feet, and you can nearly taste the tang of cider on your tongue. You can without a doubt feel the dark cloud of menace slowly enveloping his characters – and you.
In The Halloween Tree, a group of youngsters is forced to go on a journey to save a friend, learning the dark secrets behind their favorite holiday along the way. It's that removal of innocence that we all face, whether it's our first Halloween night when we're too old to go trick-or-treating, or that cold December evening when we can no longer deny the truth about who left all the goodies under the tree. The exposure of such truths is not exactly fun stuff. But, even as they help us come to terms with the fact that, as we get older, magic's grip on us gets looser, Bradbury's stories also help us keep hold of as much of that magic as we can.
Pet Semetary by Stephen King
Stephen King has gone on record as saying Pet Semetary is his scariest novel, and I'm hard pressed to disagree. It's definitely one of his darkest.
The book follows the Creed family as they move to the rural town of Ludlow, where patriarch Louis is starting a new job as the physician at a local college. They soon befriend Jud and Norma, the elderly couple across the street, and it's kindly old Jud who introduces the Creeds to the local pet cemetery. He also introduces Louis to the legend of the Micmac Indians and the mysterious power that saturates the land around the Creed home. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis discovers for himself the depths that grief can drag a person into, and the lengths he is willing to go to get out.
Doom permeates this book from page one, and King offers no letup, no comic relief. This is no warm and fuzzy celebration of autumn; it's a grim book full of sadness and pain. It's also flat-out terrifying. Enter at your own risk.
Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge
Norman Partridge wrote a certified Halloween classic in Dark Harvest. Without giving too much away, I'll reveal that it concerns a bloody ritual carried out in a small, remote town every Halloween night, one that every young boy in the town confronts with eagerness and fear. It's also got a classic Halloween villain in Sawtooth Jack, a/k/a The October Boy, a being born of the blood and secrets of one very twisted little town.
Partridge's prose crackles, and the pages blur together to form a breathless sprint for the finish. It's adventure and horror and suspense in one delicious package, and should be required reading for the Halloween season.
Partridge revisited the little town recently in Johnny Halloween, a Halloween-themed collection of his stories and essays released by Cemetery Dance Publications. The title novella gives a little more insight into The October Boy and how he came to be. It's a great companion piece to the original, and either one (or better, both) would make a great treat for you this All Hallows Eve.
So, those are my favorite Halloween reads – what are some of yours?
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country (http://theoctobercountry.wordpress.com), and contributes interviews to the Horror World website (www.horrorworld.org). Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.