Isaac Asimov is a name that carries a lot of weight in the literary world, whether you’ve read his works or not. Personally, I never have, as his history of writing “hardcore sci-fi” just doesn’t appeal to me on a general level. But, when I randomly discovered a small book of Halloween short stories called Thirteen Horrors of Halloween compiled, edited by Asimov, who also contributes a story, naturally I gave it a shot. (That H words gets me every time.) What I found was a mixed bag; the stories that dipped their toes in the horror pool were fairly solid; those utilizing a safer genre (from mystery/noir to scientific espionage) were, sadly, less impressive. Though the day/night of Halloween was their constant, the stories’ tie to it were sometimes tenuous.
Anthologies by nature are usually a mixed bag. An anthology’s editor will attempt to compile great writers with different styles united in one common theme. Because of this, not every story will appeal to every reader. Kudos to any editor who ever broke that code, because I have yet to read an across-the-board anthological success. This collection is no different. Some of the stories are fantastic, some are average, and some, well…
Let’s get with the good.
“The Forces of Evil” by Isaac Asimov (Foreword)
This introduction is incredibly interesting as it delves into the history of Halloween. Most Halloween compilations feel the need to do this, so some of this information will be familiar, but some of it will sound quite new—like Halloween’s connection to 500 B.C. Persia…or even the bible. And did you know that in certain parts of the world there is a second Halloween—May 1?
Imagine the possibilities…
“Unholy Hybrid” by William Bankier
A rather simple story about a farmer named Sutter Clay, renowned for his keen ability to effortlessly grow the most impressive and even visually interesting crops in his small town. His crops are proudly displayed each year at the town’s autumn celebration; his fellow townspeople have come to expect nothing less. He’s a man who prefers a life of solitude, but one rainy night, a drifter knocks at his door asking for temporary refuge from the nasty weather. Described as a “homely” woman, she proves herself immediately useful by cooking him meals and cleaning the house. Soon it’s several months later and she hasn’t gone anywhere—she’s used to having a place to stay, and he’s used to having her cook and clean. Things get complicated, however, when one night she confesses to him that she’s pregnant—with a direct and unavoidable implication that it’s his—and he’s none too happy about that. Without a clear reason why, Sutter solves the problem the only way he knows how. And that’s when that thing begins to slowly grow out of his grounds and haunt him.
“Unholy Hybrid” is great Halloween pulp. It’s rather dark and bleak, and its plot rather simplistic. It’s like a scenario any burgeoning writer concocts in their own mind as a possible story idea to pursue before waving it off and rightly assuming it’s already been done. Still, that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. And I like that, unlike most Halloween-set tales, this one actually begins months before the holiday. Entire seasons pass during Bankier’s careful yet momentary details, and it all leads up to Sutter Clay’s final terror—in the late hours of a new-born Halloween night.
“The October Game” by Ray Bradbury
Honestly, if you’re even reading this and showing an interest in Halloween-based literature, it’s likely you have read perhaps the greatest Halloween short story of all time. I’m not even sure how you could have missed it, as it appears in nearly every Halloween anthology I own. It’s a story about a man who has grown completely unhappy with his life – caused by his loveless wife, Louise, and who gains no feelings of fulfillment by the love of his young daughter, Marion. Forced to host a Halloween party for friends and their children, the story opens with him staring hard at a gun in his bedroom drawer and pondering potential futures before he plasters a fake smile across his face and begins to host the night’s festivities – including a rendition of a familiar Halloween party game involving a nasty story and pieces of food you’ll never forget.
Apropos for Bradbury, “The October Game” is as nasty and mean as it is darkly humorous. Bradbury is an absolute master and easily envelops his readers with the emotions of his characters. Bradbury is a man who loved life and remained wholly optimistic about it for most of his career, but his ability to write about despair, isolation, and sadness would make you think otherwise. The antagonist of “The October Game” isn’t a monster or a sociopath; he is the embodiment of a very real fear to which most people can relate – his life is the end-result of choices he wish he hadn’t made, and which has come to feel more like a prison than anything else. And he sees only one way out. “The October Game” ends with a wicked last sentence, which by itself is innocuous and even amusing, but takes on a much different meaning after having read the events leading up to it.
“Halloween Girl” by Robert Grant
One of the several tales in the collection that sheds the horror in lieu of something different. Timmy and Marcie became fast friends not long after Marcie and her family moved into town. The two discovered they have a lot in common – especially when it comes to horror. They love everything about the genre and have spent countless hours in libraries and movie theaters soaking up every dread-filled second. Naturally their most anticipated day of the year is Halloween and the next one is looming, but it’s also one that will prove to be incredibly unforgettable.
Grant’s tale is extremely sweet and melancholy. It’s about young love, death, and growing up over the course of one Halloween night. It does a fine job of keenly making the reader recall the same types of friendships from his/her own childhood and it works well because its own simplistic yet effective iteration of a shared childhood works in tandem alongside your own. The ending will bring a sad smile to your face, for sure. My fondness for this particular story led me to naming one of my own short stories after it, “The Halloween Girl of Coldsprings,” though my own girl is a lot less sweet…
“Night of the Goblin” by Talmage Powell
Told from the point-of-view of two fathers – one caring and thoughtful, the other anything but – two young children readying for a Halloween party will cross paths in a way where one of them is changed for good while the other will have no idea the part they played. And all it takes is one Karmel King.
“Night of the Goblin” is not horrific in an obvious way – there are no monsters or killers – but it does touch on themes of emotional and possibly physical abuse, and what a victim of said abuse is willing to do in order to save himself. And it uses an infamous Halloween urban legend to do it via a very clever re-imagining of “trick-or-treat.” There is a plot within the plot, masterminded by one individual. This is the trick. But this mastermind will be utilizing the most mundane thing in his candy bag to pull it off. This is where the treat comes into play. Though not a challenging read, Powell’s tale sets itself off from other Halloween tales in that focuses on something much more real and much closer to home. It’s likely the story you won’t think much about soon after finishing it, but will soon come back to fester somewhere in your mind.
“Pumpkin Head” by Al Sarrantonio
A little girl named Raylee, a shy introvert at a new school, is encouraged by her teacher to tell aloud a scary story during their class Halloween party. Raylee shares with her classmates the tale of Pumpkin Head, a sad and lonely boy born with a mutant head shaped like – you guessed it. It would seem Pumpkin Head could only take all the bullying of his students for so long before bringing something to the front of the classroom to show his teacher: a metal lunch box. And inside is a knife. “My lunch and dinner,” Pumpkin Head tells his teacher. “My dinner and breakfast.” Raylee’s teacher halts the story before its gruesome ending, but the kids seem to love it, anyway. One of the students smiles and invites Raylee to her Halloween party that night. It’s the last party many of them will ever attend.
“Pumpkin Head” has been printed in several different Halloween anthologies (just like Bradbury’s “October Game”) and there’s a good reason: it’s fantastic. It is a very clever and accomplished amalgam of Halloween traditions, present both in the upfront setting, but as well as on a thematic level. It’s about wearing costumes – obvious ones, not so obvious ones, and ones beyond our nightmares. It unfolds with suspenseful inevitability, but you’re not quite sure for whom you’re concerned. Is it Raylee, the introvert who just wants acceptance? Or is it her school mates, whose allegedly good intentions might actually instead be motive to make Halloween for little Raylee a lot more like hell?
“The Circle” by Lewis Shiner
A group of thirty-somethings continue their tradition of gathering together every year in an isolated cabin on Halloween night to share the scariest stories they could find – whether of their own creation or by a celebrated author. Among them is Lesley, somewhat pensive about attending this year’s meet after having a tryst with Rob, a former lover she had brought with her the previous October. Their romantic whatever ended rather abruptly and she hadn’t heard from him since, but she attempts to forge ahead. Once the member stake their seats, one of them takes out a letter from Rob, explaining that he would not be attending that year’s get-together, but requests the enclosed short story be read aloud. After a bout of silence, Lesley agrees to read it. And things take a turn for the worse when she realizes that events in the story seem to be closely mirroring real life—VERY closely.
“The Circle” is a pretty great offering. It’s brief, but packs a mean punch. Lesley is surprisingly fleshed out, given the brevity of the events, and it even manages to add a satirical bent, eager to go after what seems to be the target of literary critics. I can certainly get behind that! (Read the whole thing on the author’s website.)
“Yesterday’s Witch” by Gahan Wilson
A group of kids who one Halloween night tempt fate and knock on the door of Miss Marble, whom the children believe to be a witch. The yearly visitation of her house by neighborhood kids has become a Halloween tradition, but the most any kid was willing to do was knock on her door before hightailing it out of there. But this year, one particular boy has decided he’s going to knock…and wait for her to answer. And who should answer the door? The elderly and harmless Miss Marble, who invites them in for treats? Or is it a bonafide witch, like so many of the kids believe?
Written less like a story and more like a childhood recollection, “Yesterday’s Witch” ably captures the spirit of Halloween in a rather innocent fashion. It’s certainly one of the more PG offerings in the book, but still manages to chill you, should you let it. Gahan’s choice to recollect the story using a child’s memory strengthens the details and even catches you off guard with its wicked ending.
The remainder of the collection offers stories either so-so or less so, and this even includes the contribution from the collection’s editor. “Halloween” by Asimov is a very brief mystery that takes place in a hotel on November 1. It would seem some plutonium has gone missing and the man who stole it is dead, his last words being – you guessed it – “Halloween.” There’s nothing horrific about this tale at all, and its ties to Halloween exist only to create a quick mystery before ably solving it. Even the most loyal fans of Asimov’s work regard this as a curious but forgettable piece from the author’s otherwise pretty expansive and impressive body of work.
Thirteen Horrors of Halloween hasn’t been in print for years, but used copies can be snagged at the usual haunts. It’s more than worth it, if only for a handful of great stories as opposed to an entire collection.