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Horror at Halloween
edited by Jo Fletcher
Pumpkin Books, 402 pages


Terry Oakes
Horror at Halloween
Jo Fletcher
Jo Fletcher is a writer, critic, journal and editorial editor for a major London publishing house. Winner of the International Society of Poets Editor's Award and the British Fantasy Society's first Karl Edgar Wagner Special Award, her work has appeared in Dark of the Night, The Mammoth Book of Dracula, The Mammoth Book of Frankenstein, The Mammoth Book of Werewolves, Now We Are Sick, The Tiger Garden: A Book of Writer's Dreams, Voices on the Wind, White of the Moon, and others. A collection of her poetry, Shadows of Light and Dark, published in 1998, is available from Airgedi mh Publications/The Alchemy Press. Her non-fiction has appeared in Feast of Fear, James Herbert: By Horror Haunted, Reign of Fear, The World's Greatest - Mysteries and elsewhere. She co-edited Gaslight and Ghosts and Secret City: Strange Tales of London, both with Stephen Jones.

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A review by Georges T. Dodds

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If you live in one of the major urban centres of North America with their drugs, violence and crumbling infrastructure, you may have dreamed of moving yourself and your kids to a nice quiet small-town in New England, with tree-lined streets, Victorian homes with picket fences, creaky wood-floored mom-and-pop-run stores lining Main Street, and a high-school which doesn't need metal detectors at every door. However, for all their charm, there are a few small towns in New England to be avoided: where flesh-and-blood muggers, whores, gang-bangers and crazed high school outsiders are the least of your worries. For example, if you are inclined to the sea coast, you might want to avoid the old fishing village of Innsmouth. Leaving the big city you might worry about being isolated from cultural events, and opt for a town that houses a small college or university -- avoid Arkham, Massachusetts, and Oxrun Station, Connecticut. For the dangers of Innsmouth and Arkham I refer you to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. For five up-to-date case histories of strange occurrences in Oxrun Station, furthering those originally chronicled by Charles L. Grant between 1977 and 1989, I refer you to Horror at Halloween.

I must admit that I've read virtually no horror literature targeted to young adults -- no Goosebumps or similar series. Besides the Bradbury-Beaumont-Matheson circle of the 1950s and 60s, the vast majority of my horror reading has been from pre-WWII sources. This leads me to confess that, until reading Horror at Halloween, I had never heard of Oxrun Station and only peripherally of Charles L. Grant. So, conscientious reviewer that I am, off to the second-hand bookstores I went, looking for The Hour of Oxrun Dead (1977), to see how Horror at Halloween fits into the Oxrun canon. Ten book stores later, foraging through the "FREE" discard box of a fly-by-night "bookstore" in the gay village, there, in three pieces, was a stained and dog-eared mid-80s reprint of the second Oxrun novel, The Sound of Midnight.

Unlike the The Sound of Midnight, the kids in Horror at Halloween are the recipients and defenders-against various forms of the supernatural, rather than the perpetrators or minions of evil. However, in both cases the horror builds slowly, and the protagonists are, at least at first, party to a growing sense of unease, rather than any tangible flesh-and-blood threat. Being for young adults, these stories are somewhat toned down from what one might expect from adult horror, and tend towards the creepy story told around the campfire genre, an interpretation that seems reasonable given the book's cover art. The campfire story lives and dies by the atmosphere it creates before delivering the punch line, so the stories in Horror at Halloween are nicely atmospheric up to the climactic showdown between good and evil. However, this genre tends to have it's clichés -- the axe-murderer in the woods, the creepy abandoned house, the crotchety old man, premonitory dreams -- so don't expect any radically new concepts in horror.

In Stephen Bowkett's "Eleanor," the title character outwits the temptress, Tuggie Bannock, one of a pair of nasty characters who cross-over from the netherworld bent on consuming a few souls and launching a reign of terror. The story is particularly good in portraying Eleanor's moral dilemma when offered the cure to her disability. In Diane Duane's "Tina," Tina and her friend Cerise discover that the precise alignment of Saturn and the moon is likely to bring a particularly voracious Venus-like sexual predator back to life, and she's after Dad. The end of the story may be a bit contrived and silly for adults -- if only they had had a barber-shop quartet available, things would have been much simpler.

The remaining stories are somewhat more openly scary. In Craig Shaw Gardner's "Chuck," a series of increasingly daring pre-Halloween pranks/dares lead to a stay in an abandoned home near an ancient circle of standing stones. When the moms and dads show up, Chuck and his friends are in for a very unpleasant surprise. John Gordon's "Sam" does cover the cliché of the axe-murderer in the woods, but it is his images of the supernatural creaking and rumbling of a long abandoned conveyor belt climbing a forested mountainside from a quarry to a dam site, and the screams of the dam itself, that raise the story above the average. The well-developed atmospheres of the wooded hills and isolated homestead are reminiscent of Sharyn McCrumb's (e.g., She Walks These Hills, The Rosewood Casket) descriptions of the woodlands and inhabitants of the mountains of the Carolinas and Kentucky. Sam's interaction and growing attachment to the young female descendant of the axe-murderer are also well-portrayed.

The last story, by Charles L. Grant himself, tells of a truly ageless old man whose Halloween display of gravestones outside his home is more portentous than anyone knows. Cody, the title character, discovers Mr. Robson's dark secret and stops him from taking more young victims. "Cody" differs significantly from the other stories in that it has a largely unhappy twist-ending, whereas the other stories end in the ultimate defeat of the powers of evil. This sort of final manifestation that evil isn't entirely defeated also occurs in Grant's The Sound of Midnight.

So if the kids have read all the Goosebumps titles in the bookstore, perhaps they'd like to spend a little literary vacation in Oxrun Station. Perhaps you too can join them, but remember, in Oxrun Station the light of a flashlight under the covers might attract things other than a concerned parent.

Table of Contents (alphabetically by author)
Stephen Bowkett Eleanor
Diane Duane Tina
Craig Shaw Gardner Chuck
John Gordon Sam
Charles L. Grant Cody

Copyright © 2000 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.


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