[Book Review] Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre

The farther we've gotten from the magic and mystery of the past, the more we've come to love Halloween - the one time each year when the mundane is overturned in favor of the bizarre, the "other side" is closest, and everyone can become anyone (or anything) they wish... and sometimes what they don't. Introducing nineteen eighteen original stories from mistresses and masters of the dark celebrate the most fantastic, enchanting, spooky, and supernatural of holidays.

  1. Thirteen by Stephen Graham Jones
  2. The Mummy's Heart by Norman Patridge
  3. Unternehmen Werwolf by Carrie Vaughn
  4. Lesser Fires by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem
  5. Long Way Home: A Pine Deep Story by Jonathan Maberry
  6. Black Dog by Laird Barron
  7. The Halloween Men by Maria V. Snyder
  8. Pumpkin Head Escapes by Lawrence C. Connolly
  9. Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still by Caitlín R. Kiernan
  10. For the Removal of Unwanted Guests by A.C. Wise
  11. Angelic by Jay Caselberg
  12. Quadruple Whammy by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
  13. We, the Fortunate Bereaved by Brian Hodge
  14. All Hallows in the High Hills by Brenda Cooper
  15. Trick or Treat by Nancy Kilpatrick
  16. From Dust by Laura Bickle
  17. All Souls Day by Barbara Roden
  18. And When You Called Us We Came to You by John Shirley

I received this book free via
Netgalley in exchange for an
honest review.
Halloween is a holiday-themed anthology of eighteen stories that are, as Paula Guran says in the introduction, all themed to the holiday in its various forms--from Halloween to All Souls Day to a fictional harvest holiday and from mundane holiday doings to magical happenings and mystical traditions. I'm pleased to report most were satisfying reads--and one in particular was downright impressive.

But first for the disappointing handful. While Norman Patridge's The Mummy's Heart started out wonderfully, I found that it had descended into rather uncomfortable territory for my tastes by the end of the story. As the narrator shifted from his childhood memories to the adult portion of the story, things started to go downhill; my particular issue was with the female character that was introduced during what amounted to a case of Rape as Drama. Her ordeal--a gang-rape and attempted murder at the hands of a criminal biker gang--comes across as nothing more than an opportunity for the male character to be a hero and gain a lover. After the entertaining first section of the story, it quite a disappointment that the story went in that direction, and I was left wishing that it had ended before the time skip.

Also in the category of disappointing was Laird Barron's Black Dog. I'll readily admit that this might be entirely my fault; whatever the heck went on in this story, it flew right over my head. I read the story through twice and still couldn't tell you what happened at the end of it. Perhaps I'm simply uninformed of a particular myth or bit of folklore that one must know to understand the story... or maybe I'm just being dim. I don't know.

Lastly, And When You Called Us We Came to You by John Shirley was a huge disappointment. I'm not sure what the author was going for here, but the story had a spiteful, preachy vibe that ruined any change I had of enjoying it. Essentially, it's the tale of a Chinese woman in a labor camp who manages to connect with the spirits of her ancestors to take revenge on the labor camp employees who are abusing her... but before that revenge comes about, we get the following passage...

Did the people across the sea know how these masks were made? Did they know about the labor camps, and the factories where other such decorations were made? Where those strange horrible bearded "Christmas" figures were sewn together[...]? Or the eyeless reindeer made of blinking lights? Did the Americans know the people who worked so long, worked until they sicked, for so little, making these bizarre trinkets?

...that makes it clear the story has an anti-unfair labor practices theme. But it quickly becomes uncomfortably aggressive when the spirits called up the main character take a brief detour to literally tear the limbs off a group of teenagers that are clearly supposed to be materialistic, unsympathetic victims. And thus the message has moved from, "Workers should be properly compensated and not abused," to, "spoiled American teenagers whose parents unknowingly purchase Halloween decorations produced in labor camps should be torn limb from limb." While I can only assume that the author didn't intend for the story to come across that way, it still seemed very hateful and cruel.

Other stories--those being Thirteen by Stephen Graham Jones, Unternehmen Werwolf by Carrie Vaughn, and Angelic by Jay Caselberg--were interesting but didn't quite connect with me. But most of the rest of the stories in the book were satisfying Halloween-themed readsQuadruple Whammy, a story about a group of hospital doctors who discover that one of their patients on Halloween night isn't just a kid in a costume; All Souls Day, about a couple who wander into a spirit-filled graveyard on the titular holiday; Trick or Treat, about an unfairly maligned witch who enacts a crafty revenge on her tormentors; From Dust, about a girl who unintentionally breaks her family's pact with the supernatural; and All Hallows in the High Hills, about an elderly man who is reunited with an old friend in a fairyland of some sort were all solid, entertaining reads. Lesser Fires by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem was an interesting look at the folklore of a person dying after he or she sees his or her own ghost, though the world-building was a bit vague. Long Way Home by Jonathan Maberry was an interesting tie-in to the author's Pine Deep Trilogy, and it definitely piqued my interest in reading that series. Lawrence Connolly's Pumpkin Head Escapes was a pretty interesting story, though it pushed my suspension of disbelief a bit far as to the psychology of the main character. For the Removal of Unwanted Guests was a charming story about a man who ends up with a surprising roommate in his new home. We, the Fortunate Bereaved by Brian Hodge was particularly interesting for its twist ending and shift in themes.

The last two stories, Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still and The Halloween Men were spectacular for their world-building, and I look forward to reading more for both of the authors (Caitlín R. Kiernan and Maria V. Snyder, respectively).

Whilst the Night Rejoices Profound and Still was absolutely fascinating in its world-building. It's the story of a Mars colony that has been long cut-off from Earth civilization, if that even exists anymore. In the years since their essential abandonment, life has been hard for the colonists, and a religion that demonizes waste (and seems to worship the feminine) has come into existence. The story is mainly an exploration of this religion and its harvest festival, and it's quite creative and entertaining, though I was left with a few questions. (Why are lesbian couples the only parents seen during the story? Do heterosexual relationships and/or male homosexual relationships still exist? Who's fathering the children of these couples, or are both mothers biological?) I'd really love to read more fiction set in this universe.

I'd also love to read more stories or books set in the universe of The Halloween Men. It truly is the gem of this book; if only for this story, I'm glad to have picked up a copy of this anthology, and I'm definitely going to be making Kiernan's other works a higher priority on my to-read list. The Halloween Men is a dystopian story set in a city reminiscent of medieval Venice. It's a creative twist on Halloween, which in this universe is the only day of the year during which the citizens are permitted to remove their masks; and it also carries an element of mystery, given how uncertain the characters are about the nature of the villains, the Halloween Men, who are postulated to be malicious demons, vengeful angels, or simply tyrannical men. And the end of the story... man, between the masterful world-building and that brutal twist ending, I really can't wait to read some more from this author.

All in all, Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre is a pretty great anthology, and I'd definitely recommend it for some Halloween reading.

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