A group of genre greats gather to celebrate the season, and one of the true masters of the form shares his darkest, most terrifying tale in today’s Ten Essential October Reads.
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.
3. October Dreams edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish
Imagine the greatest Halloween party of all time. One attended by people who are there looking for more than an excuse to put on a costume bought at Party City and get loaded; instead, this one is attended by those with a true love for the holiday. People who want to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, the season of autumn, and the possibility of things beyond our understanding. Those who wear masks so they can mingle with the spirits who, on this one night, return to walk among us.
There’s a huge bonfire, and hot dogs on sticks, and the sweet tang of apple cider hangs in the air. Every now and then someone throws a big handful of dead leaves on the fire, and the smell of Fall fills the air. Someone is telling stories. Actually, lots of people are telling stories. The people at this party are storytellers, and their specialty is things that go bump in the night. People like Ray Bradbury and Richard Laymon. People like Ramsey Campbell, William F. Nolan and Poppy Z. Brite.
Tonight, many of them are sharing their favorite Halloween memories. Gary Braunbeck is telling about the time his Alice Cooper costume got him in trouble at Catholic school. Christopher Golden is telling about the time he used his mother’s prosthetic hand to scare the old lady down the block. Douglas Clegg is remembering how he saw a witch when he was four years old.
Some of them are also doing what comes naturally: spinning yarns. Tim Lebbon’s got a good one about a man who loses his daughter on Halloween. Dean Koontz knows a good one about a creepy old pumpkin carver. Peter Straub, Douglas Winter, Charles L. Grant – they’ve all got a tale to tell on this fine Halloween night.
Cemetery Dance is throwing the party; they call it “A Celebration of Halloween,” and never has a subtitle been more apt. Cracking open this anthology during the month of October is just like being at a party with all these people, sharing fond memories about why this particular holiday is so special to so many. It’s over 600 pages of memories, stories, and legends. It’s a great tribute to a special time. And it is, without a doubt, an Essential October Read.
2. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Pet Sematary is regarded by many – including the author himself – as Stephen King’s scariest novel. While that is of course debatable, there’s no denying it’s one of the darkest works in the Master of Horror’s bibliography. King stated in interviews around the time of the book’s 1983 publication that his wife found the book difficult to read because it was “too effective,” and that he contemplated shelving the novel altogether. Fortunately he decided to release it, giving us one of his best and most terrifying works.
The book follows the Creed family – Louis, Rachel, Ellie and little Gage – as they move to the rural town of Ludlow, where Louis is set to become the physician at a local college. In quick fashion they meet the kindly old couple across the road, Jud and Norma. Jud introduces the Creeds to the local pet cemetary, located deep in the woods behind the Creed’s new home. He also introduces Louis to the legend of the Micmac Indians, and the mysterious power that saturates the land around them. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis – and the readers – discover the depths grief can drag a person to, and the lengths they may go to get out.
A sense of doom hangs over the Creeds from page one, and King just keeps pouring the tension on, page after page. An early passage depicting what should be a happy time for the family – Ellie has successfully completed her first day of kindergarten, and Louis is listening while his infant son sleeps in his arms – is an early indicator of how bad things are going to go:
He took Gage up the stairs, walking through hot slanting September sunshine, and as he reached the landing, such a premonition of horror and darkness struck him that he stopped – stopped cold – and looked around in surprise, wondering what could possibly have come over him. He held the baby tighter, almost clutching him, and Gage stirred uncomfortably. Louis’s arms and back had broken out in great rashes of gooseflesh.
Moments later, as he’s tucking Gage into bed, Louis has an image of his uncle’s “showroom.” His uncle is an undertaker, and the showroom is full of open caskets. It’s a powerful image, and a harbinger of the terrible things to come.
Moments such as these make this the perfect October read. Pet Sematary is a book filled with suspense, dread, horrific imagery, and subject matter that will shake you to your core. In short, it’s the perfect read for Halloween.
Previously in the Series:
Ten Essential October Reads: Ray Bradbury
Ten Essential October Reads: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and “October in the Chair”
Ten Essential October Reads: The “Orangefield Cycle”
Ten Essential October Reads: Halloween and Trick or Treat