Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Week: October Dreams: A Celebration of Halloween edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish (short stories and essays)

Anthologies are usually, simply by their nature, uneven. When you depend on many different brains to come up with quality stories, you're bound to get some duds. It is this expectation that makes October Dreams such a pleasant surprise. In fact, there are so many good pieces in here, that it's easier to pick out the minuscule number of lesser ones (Hugh B. Cave, Dominick Cancilla) in this well-executed tribute to Halloween.

October Dreams is subtitled "A Celebration of Halloween" and it takes its task seriously. Interlaced with classic Halloween stories — and new ones written especially for this collection — are "My Favorite Halloween Memory" reminiscences from the authors, as well as a reading list, a film list, and a history of Halloween that focuses on the modern cultural aspects (as opposed to the usual approach of dwelling on its pagan origins).

Usually in an anthology, I've found a few disappointments by the time I've read five stories, but October Dreams has to be the most consistent collection of stories I have ever read. I didn't find anything to criticize until about the middle of the book. Editors Richard Chizmar (publisher of the dark suspense magazine Cemetery Dance) and Robert Morrish (the magazine's editor until he stepped down recently) have really done their work here. Of course, with a selection of authors like Dean Koontz, Poppy Z. Brite, Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, and F. Paul Wilson, how could they go too far wrong?

A few stories stand out from the pack, and these were the ones I chose to read out loud on Halloween night. First was "The Circle" by Lewis Shiner which is a Twilight Zone–style tale of a group of people who gather to read stories on Halloween and get a surprise when one of their members is absent but sends in a story to read anyway. Viewers of the series will probably detect the twist before the end, but it is still an enjoyable read because it follows the formula so well. The other stand out is "Mask Games" by John Shirley, where a family invites a mysterious cousin over for a Halloween party and she brings a strange game for everyone to play. This one was disturbing and creepy and kept me riveted throughout its thirty-five pages.

That "Mask Games" is one of the longer offerings is also a bonus, as any story in October Dreams can generally be read in one sitting. The one exception is "Porkpie Hat" by Peter Straub, which is a seventy-odd page novella and another disappointment. The length, I think, is the main problem. Straub, known for being long-winded at times in his fiction, takes far too long to relate the central story within the story and made me wish he would just get on with it. The beginning and end were much tighter and contained an idea I would like to see expanded upon, that of an interview with a reclusive jazz legend.

Some people have pointed a finger at F. Paul Wilson's story "Buckets" — about an abortion doctor who is terrorized by the spirits of his pre-natal victims — saying it does not belong in an anthology that is supposed to be a celebration, because they didn't like its "agenda." I disagree. I think that Wilson, as a practicing physician, is simply tapping into his own fears — sort of a "what if?" — which makes the terror that much more palpable.

Terror is an emotion that is not rampant in these tales, most of which walk along the fun side of fear, while others aim merely for disturbing. Surprisingly, "Heavy Set" by Ray Bradbury is one of these. The ending does not spell out the actions of the character in question, which makes us project our own ideas and let our imagination run wild. Sometimes, since so much focus is placed on the nostalgic nature of his tales, it's easy to forget that Bradbury is quite a hand at the horror story.

October Dreams is perfect reading for the week before Halloween. (I know, because that's when I read it.) It really gets the reader into the spirit of the holiday. Plus, the reading list ("Trick-or-Read" by Stefan Dziemianowicz) and film list ("'First of all, It Was October...'" by Gary Braunbeck) give other suggestions for holiday entertainment to be relished after you've finished with this wonderful book.

Happy Halloween!


David Cranmer said...

It does, indeed, sound like a tight little collection.

Craig Clarke said...

And it's a pleasure to dip into year after year.

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