What makes a good Halloween story?
It goes without saying it’s got to be horror. But there are certain stories that evoke that whimsical October chill better than others.
Firstly, I think the best ones are set in small towns. There’s something about insular communities where are everyone knows each other and the past can bleed into the present.
And a Halloween story, to me, has to have an element of myth – something that evokes the macabre folkloric history of the holiday. A haunted history, a local legend, an occult ritual or forgotten creature whispered about in old books and campfire tales. Or at least, a callback to the horror icons and urban legends who have joined our collective mythology.
A sense of the macabre, too; of leaves falling from trees, things dying or ending. In other words, a loss of innocence, but with a lingering feeling of magic.
Of course, it also helps to have at least a little fun. Halloween is a celebration, after all, and one that’s often embraced humour, whimsy, and camp.
This is not an easy balancing act to pull off.
Ray Bradbury was the master of the art: books like The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes unnerve even as they celebrate tradition, storytelling, and community. Clive Barker also captures that spirit with his chilling children’s novel The Thief of Always. Stephen King strikes the right vein, too, and Neil Gaiman often visits the well.
Darkness tempered with light. Hope and despair intermingling. Life and death and the cycle of the seasons.
After all, the leaves are at their brightest as summer is dying. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Here are five recent (published in the last five years or so) books that I think fit the bill:
Jo Quenell – The Mud Ballad (Weirdpunk Books)
The circus left long ago in this demented tale of a former sideshow performer who uses black magic to resurrect the conjoined twin brother he murdered. The story would be absurd if it wasn’t so shrouded in regret and loss; it reads like The Hills Have Eyes as written by Ray Bradbury.
Hailey Piper – Benny Rose, The Cannibal King (Unnerving)
Hailey Piper’s gory novella feels like a forgotten eighties slasher, with a group of teen girls taking on a legendary killer. Bonus: it actually takes place on Halloween, and has a vivid small-town setting you feel like you could walk right into.
Stephen Graham Jones – My Heart is a Chainsaw (Simon & Schuster)
Stephen Graham Jones’s tribute to slashers takes Scream’s self-referential formula up to 11. A killer’s loose in Proofrock, a small town whose history could spawn a dozen horror movies. (Local legends include a lake witch, a mysterious fire, a drowned preacher, and a summer camp massacre – not to mention half a dozen locals who may have their own motives). This novel is a feast for horror fans, and troubled goth Jade is an all-time great protagonist.
Grady Hendrix – My Best Friend’s Exorcism (Quirk Books)
Grady Hendrix is a master of taking gimmicky premises (A haunted IKEA! A true crime book club investigating the neighbourhood vampire!) and giving them real meat – dripping with blood. His 1980s-set My Best Friend’s Exorcism is a harrowing story of demonic possession that doubles as a poignant coming-of-age tale.
Sam Richard – Sabbath of the Fox Devils (Weirdpunk Books)
Adorable demons run amuck in this gory tale that sees faith, friendship and family ripped apart. After watching a forbidden cartoon (a psychedelic punk rock take on Scooby Doo that I wish was a real show), lonely 12-year-old Joe summons a cabal of fox monsters to unleash havoc. Beneath the ultraviolence, this a grim story about a family fractured by fundamentalism, and its protagonist didn’t leave my head for a long time.
Speaking of Halloween reads…
I would kick myself if I didn’t promote my own books here. (Coincidentally, they both meet the criteria set out above – hmmm).
The Forest Dreams With Teeth is an occult horror story set in a stifling suburban neighbourhood at a time when anti-heavy metal hysteria was at its peak. It’s a dangerous combination for Adam Lloyd, a metalhead teen with a penchant for sword-and-sorcery and attempted arson. Because there is an evil force at work in his town, and he’s the perfect scapegoat.
You can buy the e-book here.
If you like your Halloween reads on the lighter side, check out The Doom That Came to Mellonville. It’s a cautionary tale about black magic and improper estate planning, and an homage to macabre horror comedies like Re-Animator, Beetlejuice, and The ‘Burbs.
Happy Halloween, and happy reading!