Horror stories set on Halloween night are a dime a dozen these days, particularly among American horror authors. It makes sense; many of today’s active authors grew up in the time when Halloween was still a rite of passage. It was a night when you set out on your own, just you and your pals, seeking out candy and mischief. Sure, you were only out for a little while, and you were in the relatively safe confines of your own neighborhood, but for many it was the first taste of real freedom.
But that freedom often came tinged with the first taste of real fear as well. It was the first time out in the night, alone, without the comforting (if slightly annoying) backup provided by Mom and Dad. Everyone was clad in costumes that might look like cheap rubber and plastic in the light of day, but were much more effective in the shadows of night. That mix of exhiliration and uneasiness is wonderful to look back on, and countless authors try to capture it year after year with decidedly mixed results.
Greg Chapman is from Australia – a country for which Halloween has had very little significance in the past – but with The Last Night of October he’s quite successful in his efforts to invoke that mix of fear and wonder associated with the holiday.
Gerald Forsyth is a man who feels genuine terror each time Halloween approaches, and for good reason: what started out as a typical night of trick-or-treating for him many years ago took a sudden, tragic turn, and the old man has been dodging the consequences ever since. As the book opens he’s going through his typical Halloween night routine, which is to lock the house down tight and sweat out the hours ’till dawn.
One of the reasons this novella works so well is the way Chapman slowly doles out the backstory. We’re in the dark for much of the first half of the story as to why Forsyth is so scared. The same can be said for Kelli Pritchard, the young home health care attendant who shows up just as night is falling to check on the sickly old man. Kelli is subbing for Forsyth’s regular nurse, and her stubborn commitment to her job is a broken cog in the man’s carefully orchestrated routine. It’s Kelli that answers a knock on Forsyth’s door, inadvertantly letting in the one thing Forsyth is desperate to keep out and setting off a chain of events that has been a long time coming.
Chapman weaves his story with cold, economical precision. There’s very little fat here, especially once Forsyth, Kelli and their strange visitor are locked in together. Even as he takes us back in time to relive Forsyth’s worst Halloween he keeps the story moving forward. The result is a quick read that will linger much longer than a bag of cheap Halloween candy. Don’t wait until next Halloween to give this one a shot – The Last Night of October will deliver chills all year ’round.