TEN CLASSICS OF HALLOWEEN FICTION
by Lisa Morton
Most horror fans probably think that Halloween-themed fiction has a lengthy and deep history, and glancing at lists of October releases every year would certainly lend credence to that belief. But the truth is that prior to the twentieth century, Halloween made surprisingly few appearances in fiction; the only stories to focus completely on the holiday were usually quaint tales of middle-class parties found in ladies’ magazines, and aimed at Victorian hostesses who were in search of themed parties to fill that gap between Independence Day and Christmas.
In the twentieth century, though, as Halloween celebrations spread throughout America, so did Halloween fiction. Interestingly, stories from the first half of the century still focused on parties; it wasn’t until the close of the 1900s that Halloween fiction became its own cottage industry, with stories now centering on everything from trick or treat to haunted attractions to urban legends to Halloween’s Celtic origins.
The list below includes only works of fiction (excluding, in other words, poetry, because this list would start with Robert Burns’s 1785 masterpiece “Hallowe’en” if that were the case), is arranged chronologically, and is notated to make these works easy to find.
“Clay” (1914) by James Joyce – Yes, this is the James Joyce primarily known for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, but the Irish author also wrote this poignant and subtly dreadful story of a lonely, impoverished woman who attends a Halloween party and plays fortune-telling games, with melancholy results. “Clay” appears in Joyce’s collection Dubliners, which is still in print and easily available.
“All Souls’” (1937) by Edith Wharton – Even though this story seems to confuse All Souls Day (November 2nd) and Halloween, there’s no question that it belongs to the latter holiday. This low-key, creepy and even mildly surreal gem is about a wealthy woman living in an isolated mansion who wakes up on Halloween to discover that all of her servants have vanished and she’s alone in the house. The story has an undercurrent of rich vs. poor and American vs. Old World tensions, and remains very effective. It can be found in the wonderful collection The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton (still in print).
“The Cloak” (1939) by Robert Bloch – This wry little tale by the author of Psycho may be the first modern Halloween tale to feature costuming, and is one of the earliest examples of a definitive Halloween tale by a horror author. It’s about a man who rents a vampire costume to attend an upper-crust Halloween party, only to discover that he now has a desire to drink blood. Although the story has been reprinted dozens of times, it doesn’t seem to appear in any current books; the most recent is the 1994 collection Robert Bloch: The Early Fears (which is readily available for purchase at most online book sites).
“The October Game” (1948) by Ray Bradbury – Bradbury is the king of Halloween fiction and this could be his crowning achievement. This unnerving little tale focuses on a children’s Halloween party at which the kids are being entertained by the classic game of passing squishy things around in the dark and being told they’re body parts. The story is justifiably famous for its last line, and has been anthologized dozens of times, although as with The Cloak it’s been missing from most recent volumes. A cheap used copy of the Bradbury book Long After Midnight is probably the way to go.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1967) by Charles M. Schulz – Yes, I know it’s more widely known as a beloved television special, and yes, I know it’s a kid’s book…but this is arguably the single most important work on this list. Prior to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, children’s Halloween books were amazingly scarce; probably the best known one prior to this was Robert Bright’s 1958 Georgie’s Halloween, about a lonely little ghost who fits right in on October 31st. The success of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, though, paved the way for an explosion of children’s Halloween books, and may even have spilled over into the adult realm as well. The book hasn’t gone out of print since 1967.
The Halloween Tree (1972) by Ray Bradbury – This fantasy novel, about an enigmatic character named Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud who takes a group of boys on a tour of Halloween’s history, is easily the most beloved Halloween novel of all time. It features Bradbury’s rich style and looks at related holidays like Dia de los Muertos and the Egyptian Feast of the Dead. The book also spawned an animated film and has been continuously in print since its original publication.
“Gone” (2000) by Jack Ketchum – This Bram Stoker Award-winning short story originally appeared in the seminal anthology October Dreams, which paved the way for the Halloween fiction of the 21st century. The story is a bleak recounting of a frightening encounter between some trick or treaters and a woman grieving over the loss of her own child. October Dreams was reprinted in a trade paperback edition in 2002, and although it’s now out of print it can be easily acquired used.
“Mr. Dark’s Carnival” (2000) by Glen Hirshberg – This long story mixes up Halloween decorating, folklore, and urban legends to tell a deeply unsettling story about a professor who discovers the dreadful truth behind his small town’s obsession with Halloween. The story is also a commentary on America’s violent history, and features fiction’s most unusual take on a Halloween haunted house. The story appears in Hirshberg’s collection The Two Sams, which can be easily found at used book sites.
“Hornets” (2001) by Al Sarrantonio – This novella first appeared in the anthology Trick or Treat: A Collection of Halloween Novellas, and began Sarrantonio’s popular “Orangefield Cycle”, a series of interlinked novels and stories that celebrate Halloween in the fictitious small town of Orangefield. In “Hornets”, a successful author wrestles with an insect infestation during Halloween season as he creates a children’s book centered on the character “Sam Hain”. “Hornets” was reprinted in the mass market collection Horrorween, which is readily available used.
Dark Harvest (2006) by Norman Partridge – This fast-paced novella is set in a mythical town in 1963 where Halloween is celebrated with a hunt and a sacrifice, all centering on a character called “the October Boy”. The story is a potent commentary on the myth of the small American town, and in addition to receiving multiple awards it was named one of Publisher’s Weekly’s 100 Best Books of 2006. The book is still in print.
In 2012, Halloween fiction is alive and well, with many small press publishers (including Bad Moon Books, Dark Regions, and Earthling) releasing new Halloween-themed books for October. Among the best of the Halloween releases in the last few years: The anthology Halloween, edited by Paula Guran and published by Prime Books; Earthling Publication’s Halloween series, which has included such critically-acclaimed books as David Herter’s October Dark, Peter Crowther’s By Wizard Oak, and Glen Hirshberg’s Motherless Child; the novellas of Paul Melniczek, which usually feature lonely protagonists encountering Halloween threats in archetypal towns; and here at MonsterLibrarian.com, my own novella The Samhanach was featured as one of the top picks of 2011, and Rhonda Wilson reviews my 2012 offering Hell Manor elsewhere on the site.
LISA MORTON BIO: Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, an award-winning fiction author, and one of the world’s leading Halloween experts. Her work was described in the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”, and her latest non-fiction book, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (Reaktion Books) recently reached the #1 spot on Amazon’s list of Holiday bestsellers. She lives in North Hollywood, California, and online at www.lisamorton.com