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Haunted Nights / Edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton

Anchor Books / October 2017
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Haunted Nights would seem to have the perfect horror pedigree: It’s co-edited by both the world’s preeminent genre anthologist and the leading authority on Halloween; it’s put together by the world’s largest professional association of horror writers; it’s published by Blumhouse Books, the publishing arm of megawatt horror producer Jason Blum; it boasts a stellar lineup of contributing authors; and it’s got the quintessential horror theme—Halloween.

In her introduction, Morton presents a crash course on the origins—both real-life and literary—of Halloween and makes a compelling case for why the holiday remains so thematically relevant and effective in speculative fiction:

“Halloween, with its roots in a night that lifts the veil between our world and the next, is broad enough to hold horror tropes like ghosts, witches, and shape-shifters, but it also has its own specific icons, like ‘Stingy Jack,’ the blacksmith who outwits the devil but is finally forced to wander the earth forever with his way lit only by a glowing hell ember carried in a carved pumpkin (or turnip), the jack-o’-lantern, in other words. Halloween’s universal appeal—we are all interested in death, aren’t we? —makes it work in both isolated, rural settings and densely packed urban locales. It has a rich history and seems poised to extend into a long and interesting future.”

Morton, sharing co-editing duties with Ellen Datlow, goes on to present sixteen stories cast against their broad Halloween backdrop to demonstrate the holiday’s thematic breadth, depth, and versatility.

This literary Halloween party ably kicks off with Seanan McGuire’s beautifully titled “With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfsbane Seeds.” Her Oregon-set tale tells the story of a lonely ghost girl haunting the halls of her eerily preserved childhood manse in search of a playmate. A group of would-be teenage vandals presents a fine selection from which to choose.

Stephen Graham Jones, always a bankable anthology talent, offers “Dirtmouth.” The first-person confessional format is a smart narrative choice for this story of a grieving widower who—with infant twins in tow for a month-long retreat at a snowy mountain cabin—encounters the simultaneously comforting and discomfiting manifestation of his missing and presumed-dead wife. Jones ably crafts an unreliable narrator who leaves the reader to fill in the blanks and draw conclusions at tale’s end.

Jonathan Maberry presents a mouth-watering revenge tale in “A Small Taste of the Old Country.” An Austrian baker invites two questionably Argentinian men to dine in celebration of Seelenwoche, or All Souls’ week. Maberry’s encyclopedic knowledge of world breads alone is so impressive and immersive that readers will forgive the rather obviousness of the story’s eventual revelations. Try the soul cakes while you’re there!

Ghost stories are the Halloween currency at a dejected roadside tavern in Joanna Parypinski’s atmospheric, if somewhat rushed, “Wick’s End.” Parypinski packs a lot into her modest word count and the result feels like plucking one of those tasty but ultimately disappointingly small sample-size candies out of an otherwise stuffed trick-or-treat bag.

In “The Seventeen-Year Itch,” Garth Nix starts off strong with this escalating tale of a mental hospital and a strange old patient with a nagging itch. Like Parypinski’s tale before it, the reader is left wishing Nix had been sent back by the editors to fill in just a few more of the blanks by story’s end. Instead, like the titular itch, there’s just a nagging sense of missing origin.

A downtrodden single mother of two trying to scrape by on public assistance and living in a bad part of town—especially on Devil’s Night—fears for the man her teenage son will turn out to be in Kate Jonez’s effectively tragic “A Flicker of Light on Devil’s Night.”

Jeffrey Ford dazzles with “Witch Hazel,” a spellbinding tale of 19th-century terror set in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. When twin sisters go on a murderous rampage during a Halloween celebration, the local doctor quickly diagnoses a brain parasite, which he more atmospherically characterizes as “something that has crawled out of the dark heart of the barrens, centuries old.” Dubbed “the suspicions” for “the paranoia it engendered with a fury that took over the mind,” the disease isn’t just a matter of biology and chemistry as the doctor and some of the townsfolk soon find out. Ford nails the feelings of superstitions passed down over generations and the folklore leanings of the story are strong and beautifully executed.

Kelley Armstrong grabs readers in the opening paragraphs of “Nos Galan Gaeaf” and doesn’t let go until the last sentence. She captures both the intricacies of Welsh customs and obsessive-compulsive disorder with a disarming deftness that makes this one of the collection’s standout tales. Bullied teen Lance—or Loser Lance to his detractors—has what appears to be a foolproof plan to rid himself of the girl he’s convinced has bewitched him under cover of his town’s titular calendar designation (also known as Spirit Night) “when the veil between the human world and the otherworld was thinnest.” Armstrong masterfully brings the midwestern town of Cainsville—with its strong Welsh identity and customs—convincingly to life and ghoulishly turns the tables during the rite of Coelcerth, proving that even the most ancient of traditions are rooted in inescapable present-day realities.

While the stories up to this point in Haunted Nights impressively capture either a strong sense of setting or holiday atmosphere, it’s S.P. Miskowski’s “We’re Never Inviting Amber Again” that’s the first to invoke a palpable sense of dread. This deceptively simple tale of a suburban couple’s Halloween party being marred by the appearance of the wife’s sister, who may or may not possess legitimate occult skills, brings the heebie-jeebies in full force. Miskowski uses the invited party guest’s imminent arrival to deftly foreshadow her track record as a party killer and then follows through with the story’s pitch-perfect execution.

In Brian Evenson’s cleverly tongue-in-cheek “Sisters,” Halloween is viewed, explained, and exploited through alien eyes to great comedic effect. The gallows humor is lighthearted and fun here with a decidedly Twilight Zone vibe.

An Irish immigrant, alone and widowed in the New World, must confront folklore-inspired superstitions from the Old World in Elise Forier Edie’s heartrending “All Through the Night.” Another fine example of the myriad elements and emotions that horror can incorporate and explore effectively within the context of genre.

Guilt is the overarching villain in Eric J. Guignard’s fantastical “A Kingdom of Sugar Skulls and Marigolds.” On Día de los Muertos, an L.A. gang member is visited by some deceased loved ones in a bid to help him reconnect with a lost childhood friend to make amends. There’s a surprisingly poignant, left-field twist to this one that Guignard handles nimbly, never sacrificing the authenticity of the machismo gang culture or the lush details of his protagonist’s journey through the magical Mexican holiday. Let this one play out behind the mind’s eye like the literary equivalent of an animated Tim Burton short.

Paul Kane taps into the disquietude we’ve all felt at some point in our lives when we sense someone is standing behind us and we fight the compulsion to turn around in the goosebumps-inducing “The Turn.” Tim Nolan is raised on a steady diet of superstitions and dire warnings about Halloween by his grandmother—superstitions he must confront head-on when circumstances find him out and about on an unexpected Halloween night journey. Kane starts off strong with an unnamed evil narrating and foreshadowing, but he overuses the device to ultimate detraction.

Pat Cadigan offers up her own take on the Stingy Jack legend in the simply-titled “Jack.” A third-generation witch polices the local cemetery on All Soul’s Day awaiting the annual attempt by the titular legend to trick the recently deceased into taking his hellfire turnip lantern off his hands. It’s a solidly atmospheric tale, enhanced considerably by Cadigan’s clever inclusion of some modern-day technology that ably aids her acolyte protagonist.

John Langan submits the strongest—and longest—tale of the Haunted Nights bunch with “Lost in the Dark.” Cinephiles will delight in the meta twists and sheer ingenuity of this layered tale about the possible documentary origins of a popular found-footage horror film. Langan slyly (name)drops Easter eggs (which we’ll refer to here as Halloween candy to keep with the anthology’s theme) with gleeful abandon throughout this thoroughly enjoyable, downright creepy story. Fans of exhaustive documentaries on iconic film franchise villains like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers will delight in meeting Bad Agatha.

John R. Little’s futuristic “The First Lunar Halloween” scores the enviable—if daunting—task of closing Haunted Nights. Anyone familiar with Little’s work knows he’s a writer up to the task. With Earth destroyed by aliens and surviving mankind living on a moon-based settlement called Tranquility, a school field trip to the lunar surface to recreate the quaint earthy holiday of—you guessed it—Halloween brings intended scares and unintended consequences.

Editors Datlow and Morton and their assemblage of talented Haunted Nights contributors have sixteen opportunities to scare their readers’ pants off. A few—Miskowski and Ford, preeminently—surpass expectations and succeed. A few others, like Edie and Guignard, surprise with their emotional resonance. Others still—Jones, Armstrong, and Langan—bring a refreshing sense of originality to a holiday (at least in the hands of lesser writers) that’s prone to cliché. Haunted Nights succeeds as a whole largely because of the diversity of its parts, a credit to Datlow and Morton in constructing this exemplary anthology.  

Purchase Haunted Nights, edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton.

Posted on Friday, March 16, 2018 at 07:57PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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