Before I started October Country, I wrote a spec fiction blog for Examiner.com. In 2009, I ran a series there called “Ten Essential October Reads,” and it continues to be one of the things I’m most proud of. I’ve got a little something in the works for next week – Halloween week – that will serve as a continuation of the series, but I thought that, before I run with that, I’d like to reprint the original “Ten Essential” series here. I’m going to double up so I can squeeze them all in before next week, starting with tonight’s double feature: Halloween and Trick or Treat. I hope you enjoy it.
October is here, and with it comes Ten Essential October Reads. With the countdown to Halloween ticking away, there’s no better time to look at some books that really capture the spirit of the holiday, whether it’s the childhood traditions of trick-or-treating and playing pranks, the essence of a cool autumn day, or the dark things that scurry through the shadows. Throughout the month, I’ll be spotlighting ten books or stories that I think capture the magic of the season.
10. Halloween by Richard Curtis
Halloween is one of my top ten favorite movies of all time, and my favorite horror movie, period. But I hadn’t thought of the novelization for this list until Vince Liaguno, erstwhile editor of Dark Scribe Magazine, suggested it on the Shocklines message board. Its inclusion makes sense, at least to me. It’s no masterpiece of writing like some of the other entries we will see, but hey – my list, my favorite scary movie, why not?
I knew I had the book somewhere, and after much digging around in the “library” (i.e. the various locations around the house where many books are stacked and boxed and, sometimes, shelved), I found it. I always loved that cover – the boy in the white sheet, butcher knife in hand, grinning jack o’ lantern atop his head. The contents are basically a retelling of the film, with some additional scenes apparently taken from early drafts of the screenplay. (Scenes added into the film for the televised version are not, as far as I can tell, included in the book).
The biggest difference between book and movie is the portrayal of Michael. In the film, John Carpenter (aided by that eerie blank mask) shows us a Michael Myers devoid of emotion or reason. Michael is intelligent – we see him thinking three steps ahead of his prey – but we don’t know why he came home, and what triggered his murderous rampage through Haddonfield. In the book, we get plenty of explanation – too much, in fact. It’s the mistake that all of the sequels and remakes made and continue to make; they unmasked the monster, removed the mystery, and enable us to explain it all away.
The book opens in ancient times, during some sort of ancient ritual, and we witness a murder that mirrors much of what Michael does to his sister centuries later. Later, as we switch focus to the Myers family, it’s explained that Myers hears voices – his own, young voice, and that of an older person (or being), urging him to follow a dark and deadly path by telling him to hate those around him, and torturing him with strange images:
People in strange costumes, animal skins, armor, leather, drinking and dancing wildly around a fire. One couple in particular. They looked like Judy and Danny, madly in love with each other, dancing in a circle around a huge bonfire while he, Michael, stood in the crowd hating them, burning up with jealousy.
It’s also suggested in the book that members of Michael’s family sensed something was wrong with the boy, whereas in the film it’s more like he just snapped on that one, fateful night. The additions and expansions were no doubt necessary for the book, and make for an interesting “alternative” view of the story, but reading them also shows how restraint became Carpenter’s friend – by excising everything but the brutal cat-and-mouse game, Carpenter turned is first film into an instant classic.
Halloween is long out of print, and difficult to find. But it’s worth tracking down if, like me, you find the film to be an integral part of the season.
It should be noted, by the way, that the book’s author, “Curtis Richards,” is actually Dennis Etchison, an accomplished author who also novelized the second and third Halloween films under the name “Jack Martin.” Etchison also wrote novelizations of The Fog and Videodrome.
9. Trick or Treat edited by Richard Chizmar
Trick Or Treat collects novellas by some of the horror genre’s most accomplished authors (Gary Braunbeck, Thomas Tessier, Al Sarrantonio, Nancy Collins, and Rick Hautala). Braunbeck hits the home run here with “Tessellations,” which he opens with one of the most chilling and effective descriptions of Halloween ever put to paper:
There is a certain night when stories of the darkness and that which calls it home are commonplace, accompanied by a host of spirits who wait patiently for their chance to set foot upon soil where unknowing mankind shrugs off its fear with laughter and candy and the celebrating of the ancient ritual. The mouth of this night is the choice hour for the formless, nameless, restless dead as thy drift in low-moaning winds, searching for something – an errant wish, an echo of joy or terror, a blind spot in someone’s peripheral vision – anything they can use to give themselves shape and dimension, however briefly.
Now, if that don’t have you looking over your shoulder come Halloween night, I don’t know what will. And the rest of the story, unfolding on the very night Braunbeck describes here, only brings more chills.
Sarrantonio’s contribution, “Hornets,” plays a very important part of his Orangefield saga, which we’ll be discussing in more depth soon.
Collins comes to bat with “The Eighth Devil,” a story about confronting the legends that seep into the history of just about every small town. It’s also a sort of coming-of-age story about a group of kids coming to grips with the fact that Halloween, along with the rest of their childhood, is on the verge of passing them by.
Hautala’s “Miss Henry Bottles” wraps a tale about secrets – family, town and otherwise – in another story of Halloween in a small town. (Come to think of it, most Halloween stories seem to be set in small towns and suburbs – I guess pulling off that particular vibe is a little difficult among the high-rises and busy streets of the big cities.) Tessier’s “Scramburg U.S.A.” holds the slightest connection to the holiday, and really is the least effective story of the lot.
Masks, moonlight, candy, curfews, traditions, tricks and treats – opening this book is like opening that pillowcase, bag or sack at the end of a long Halloween night, digging through to find the favorites and the disappointments. Fortunately, there’s very little to be displeased about in this Halloween haul. Take it off the shelf this All Hallow’s Eve and crack it open while you wait for the doorbell to ring. Some of these stories may make you think twice about answering it.