Alan Ryan (ed.) – Halloween Horrors (1986)

Review by Justin Tate

Like most ’80s short story collections, this one is a mixed bag. Less mixed than most, however. The majority of stories are quite good, some borderline exceptional. “Miss Mack” by Michael McDowell is the most alluring entry, and this is the only publication where you can find it. Here’s a mini review of each story:

Introduction / “Halloween Night” by Alan Ryan

In lieu of a dull prosaic introduction, Ryan wisely opens this anthology with a short poem that celebrates the mischief and merriment of Halloween—specifically Halloween night when all the heavy hitters come out. Cute!

He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door by Robert R. McCammon

Very Halloweeny! McCammon is known for thick novels, but here is a clean, short piece that delivers full range Halloween phantasm, including top secret town meetings, high stakes trick or treating, and a home invasion by the Devil himself. It’s a little silly, a lot scary, and encompasses everything there is to love about October 31st. A superb opener!

Eyes by Charles L. Grant

Though my sampling is limited, I’m rarely pleased by Grant’s “quiet” or “lingering” style of horror. I would rephrase this as “vague” or “boring.” That said, Eyes is worth reading. Ryan introduces this story by saying he encouraged Grant to write something “really nasty.” An effective prompt, I think, and you can feel it working against Grant’s usual desire to write about nothing.

There’s still plenty of signature Grant rhapsodies, but he catches himself earlier than normal and abruptly paragraph breaks back to content. If you can get through these atmospheric, possibly ADHD-fueled indulgences, you’ll find a memorable story of parental guilt, creepy jack-o’-lanterns, and Halloween hauntings. If nothing else, the story’s imagery proved helpful for the 1st edition cover art.

The Nixon Mask by Whitley Strieber

Many odd things happen as Richard and Pat Nixon pass out Halloween candy in the White House. Almost like Twilight Zone odd, but actually more ‘odd’ as in illogical. For example, the president and first lady have entire scripts for telephone greetings and what to say to children’s Halloween costumes. It’s not clear why they need scripts for these mundane activities or why it’s so difficult to stick to them. Was this something the Nixons did routinely?

There’s a point where Nixon loses his place in the script and calls a Cinderella-dressed child a terrifying ape, but the logistics of the mishap—and how it continues for several more children—is inexplicable. Did he memorize reactions to an entire group of children’s costumes in advance? Why such a challenge to get back on script?

In the final pages the strangeness shifts into what is possibly a symbolic suggestion that Watergate was due to supernatural evil taking over Nixon’s personality. Like Halloween as a metaphor for paranoid schizophrenia. Maybe?

Perhaps I’m too far removed from 1970s current events, or perhaps Strieber’s symbolism is too obscure, but I’m pretty sure this one misses the mark either way. It still compels the reader to turn the pages, but only in effort to understand what the hell is going on.

The Samhain Feis by Peter Tremayne

My first exposure to Tremayne, though his novel The Ants (1979) is high on my to-read list. His prose is good enough but the pacing lacks urgency. It’s a disappointingly slow burn for a story that’s only 19 pages. When the Celtic-inspired Halloween spookiness finally kicks in, however, you get what you paid for. Too bad that’s only about five pages.

Trickster by Steve Rasnic Tem

Family drama involving a dead brother with a Halloween heart. Hooks right away and doesn’t let go. Vivid characters who effortlessly swell in complexity as the pages turn. The ending is unnecessarily ambiguous (no idea what happened) but the ride is so good I don’t even mind. Have a feeling this will be one of the standouts in the collection.

Miss Mack by Michael McDowell

Since reading McDowell’s epic family saga Blackwater I’ve been obsessed with everything he’s ever written, including a novelization of the movie Clue.

No surprise, this story, which Ryan bills as McDowell’s “first” short piece, does not disappoint. Rich setting, fully formed characters, a haunting sense of impending doom. With signature finesse, McDowell lulls us into a false sense of normalcy, only vaguely aware of something sinister in the air, then drops the horror.

His style remains unique and fresh as the years go by, improving even with age. Recently I’ve seen his novels popping up on the syllabi of gothic literature courses. Deservingly so. McDowell is one of the few who have elevated the horror genre into something respectable and worth studying. Admittedly this short story doesn’t have the literary power of his lengthier masterworks, but it still comes across savory. Something you want to read multiple times. A+

Hollow Eyes by Guy N. Smith

Didn’t care for this one. Hard to pinpoint why. It’s from a villainous POV which is often interesting, but in this case the character is a bit too unstable to deliver good narration. I also think Smith takes himself too seriously. A little levity might have made this harsh dish more digestible.

The Halloween House by Alan Ryan

The editor’s story is a traditional haunted house refrain with teenage characters and an unexpected twist at the end. The twist is delicious and clever, though rather thick with plot holes. I’m sure there could’ve been more creative ways to build up to that epic ending image. Ways that enhance the prior pages rather than make them all problematic in retrospect. Still, I like it, so mission accomplished.

Three Faces of the Night by Craig Shaw Gardner

Confusing all around, from the structure to the scatterbrained story. Not a highlight.

Pumpkin by Bill Pronzini

Pumpkins are my favorite thing about Halloween, and certainly a story about an evil one keeps my attention. Pronzini writes in a mainstream, easy-to-digest way, with recognizable characters and crisp descriptions. An enjoyable ride even if the ending is abrupt and misses an opportunity to deliver over-the-top horror. Just a few extra paragraphs of grisly imagery might have been enough to move this from interesting to a favorite.

Lover in the Wildwood by Frank Belknap Long

Frank Belknap Long is the type of writer I wish to be. He published his first story at the age of 22 and never stopped until his death at 92. His biography is rather interesting as well, since he was an enduring friend to H.P. Lovecraft and many other big names in the horror/sci-fi world.

Admittedly I haven’t read many of his works, but I always admire his tender attention to character and pushing the genre into more emotional territory rather than the more common shlock. This story here is no exception, with characters who are deeply involved in their fictional world and have actual, deep feelings. It sticks out, not as a sore thumb but as a slightly grim reminder of real world scares and not just the fantastic. Admittedly not as memorable either, but it improves the collection by diversifying the ordinary definition of Halloween.

Apples by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell is another horror staple whose continuous writing career is presently in its fifth decade. I’ve certainly read better by him than this submission, however, which is too noisy with side plots and lacks focus on any particular character.

Pranks by Robert Bloch

Bloch is known for writing Psycho, but his bibliography of other novels and short stories is an endless source of quality entertainment. His prose is effortlessly captivating and his ability to see a premise through to the end is something to be admired. For this story, he uses a collage of flash snippets to build a full neighborhood of Halloween activity. The ending, though vague and mysterious, will certainly scare parents.

Overall…

It’s basically impossible to find a short story anthology that’s good from beginning to end. My hunch tells me it’s because big authors have their work pre-accepted on name only, not on merit. Consequently there’s not much initiative. This collection also suffers from being a boy’s club (every story is written by a man) and the lack of diversity is noticeable.

Nevertheless, Halloween Horrors is more reliably good than most. The few standouts are really standouts, particularly the McDowell and McCammon tales. You could find worse autumn reading.

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