HALLOWEEN PARTY by R.L. Stine — 🎃

blog - halloween party by r.l. stineThey all received the same black-bordered envelope. Inside was an invitation to a Hallowe’en party to be thrown by Justine, the newest new girl at Shadyside High. She and her uncle have just moved into their old family mansion at the end of Fear Street, and what better setting for an All Hallows’ Eve celebration? Couple Terry and Niki are among the invited, but quickly begin to question the motives behind the bash. Why have only nine people been invited? And why invite a group of people who barely share anything in common with one another? They go to the party, regardless, hoping to get some answers. They get more than they bargained for when the body of a fellow reveler turns up with a carving knife sticking straight out of his chest….

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I honestly could not think of a better way to finish off the spook season than with a Fear Street book. And what could be more fitting than going for the one titled Halloween Party?

This is technically my first proper Fear Street! I started reading the series this summer, as part of my whole Summer Spooks deal, but none of the books I read were actually 𝘴𝘦𝘵 on the titular street. This one most definitely is, though, and it’s a whole different vibe.

I had a lot of fun with it. It’s trashy and schlocky and totally appropriate for the day. It also surprised me by including a fair bit of deaf representation. In a young adult book! From the ‘90s! It’s not perfect, needless to say, but still — you go, Stine. Niki is a certified badass of a character. 

Hallowe’en has long been my favorite time for reading, and I always have a blast delving into the spookier side of my library. It’s sad that the season has come to an end, but as Niki points out towards the end of the party: “It’s always Halloween on Fear Street.”  ⠀

𝕳𝖆𝖑𝖑𝖔𝖜𝖊’𝖊𝖓 𝖎𝖘 𝖊𝖙𝖊𝖗𝖓𝖆𝖑, in other words. 

I hope you all have a good one.

PUMPKINHEADS by Rainbow Rowell, Faith Erin Hicks — 🎃

blog - pumpkinheads by rainbow rowell, faith erin hicksAnother Hallowe’en. Another year of reading this graphic novel. Another year of me gushing about this book. You probably know the drill by now.

This is my third year reading Pumpkinheads, the exceedingly charming graphic novel by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks (with colors by Sarah Stern). The last couple of times I’ve picked it up at the very start of the Hallowe’en season, feeling its lighthearted tone and quintessentially fall vibes made for a perfect way to kick off October. This time around I opted to wait until the end of the month, for no reason other than that is when the story is set and it felt right. As the weeks passed, I found myself anxious to fall back into it, but it was absolutely worth the wait. Reading this graphic novel feels like a homecoming now. Like catching up with friends you haven’t seen in over a year. 

Josie and Deja, our preposterously beautiful protagonists, certainly feel like friends. I always finish this story wanting to read more about them. Rowell ends the story hinting at a Christmas reunion, and hopefully that’s more than a throwaway line and is actually in the cards because that’s something I would desperately want.

The autumn ambiance artists Hicks and Stern have illustrated define the season for me now. The images and colors they conjured up are what I see whenever I think of this time of year. Quite the feat seeing as how I live in a place with no proper fall.

Lastly, this book just makes me cry, dudes. “October means you,” never fails to hit me like a bag of bricks. 

Pumpkinheads is not remotely spooky. It’s all heart and mush and feelings, instead — notions not traditionally associated with the autumn months. But it means October to me, still.

THE CARDBOARD KINGDOM: ROAR OF THE BEAST by Chad Sell, Various — 🎃

blog - the cardboard kingdom - roar of the beast by chad sell, variousThe Cardboard Kingdom tells the stories of a group of particularly creative kids in a suburban neighborhood and the worlds, communities, and identities they create using nothing but copious amounts of cardboard and their intense imaginations.

Roar of the Beast, the second volume of the budding graphic novel series, finds the youths gearing up for Hallowe’en, adding extra flair to their already elaborate costumes and constructions. Multiple sightings of a monstrous creature creeping around the community puts the kids on edge, however, as does the fact that one of their own is being targeted by teenage bullies. The combination of events threatens to not only ruin their holiday, but also tear the kingdom they’ve worked so hard to build asunder.

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○ The first volume of The Cardboard Kingdom was one of the best books I read last year, so its follow-up was naturally highly anticipated. I pre-ordered it knowing nothing about it, but you can imagine, I’m sure, the joy I felt finding out it was not only Fall themed but centered around Hallowe’en, as well. Chad Sell and Company: delivering delights.
○ Sell’s spectacular artwork was a highlight in the first volume, and continues to be still.
○ There is wholesome queer rep here! Always lovely to see, especially in middle grade offerings.
○ A lot more focus on Alice the Alchemist, a morbid little creep of a character. She’s a favorite. So much fun.
○ The kids end up squaring off against The Teens, naturally. The set piece  feels straight out of an ‘80s movie and I am here for it.
○ This book is a lot of fun. A lot more streamlined than the first book, which was more a collection of interconnected short stories (illustrated by Sell and written by various authors) rather than a straight, linear plot. I prefer the anthological approach, but this was a great effort.
○ As per last time, I appreciate the work Sell and his collaborators put into making these stories as inclusive and diverse as they could possibly be. This is a Hallowe’en romp, but it is also a quiet, careful exploration of mental health, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Heady, heavy themes that are handled in such a way that they don’t weigh down the story’s pulpy foundation.
○ Ultimately, I hope these creators continue to bring out hopeful narratives like this, because the kids of the world need and deserve them.

“THE LITTLE WITCH” by M. Rickert — 🎃

blog - the little witch by m. rickertA lonely old woman befriends a trick-or-treater who doesn’t seem to age….

And that’s about as much as I can tell you by way of summary, so as not to spoil this spellbinding short story. 

I loved reading “The Little Witch, even though I’m not entirely sure I understood it as a whole. In any case, author M. Rickert’s prose is beautiful enough to make up for any discombobulation one may feel. I found the way she wrote scenery particularly breathtaking, with vivid, poetic descriptions of natural landscapes that were nothing if not transportive. Her characterization was also a stand-out, managing as she did to break my heart multiple times in just a scant number of pages (indeed, most of my notes are some variation of oh my god).

“The Little Witch” is a weird, mystifying, at times surprisingly unsettling little story about two witchy, weary souls finding one another and feeling less lonely in the world. It captures the melancholy, ephemeral nature of the autumnal season better than anything I’ve read so far this year. I adored it, utterly, and encourage you to take the time to read it before the month is out. The story can be found on Tor’s website.

ATTACK OF THE JACK-O’-LANTERNS by R.L. Stine — 🎃

Twelve-year-old Drew Brockman loves Hallowe’en. Too bad it keeps getting ruined by local bullies, Tabby and Lee, whose idea of a perfect All Hallows’ Eve consists of playing mean-spirited pranks on Drew and her friends. Drew vows that this Hallowe’en will be different, though, having spent the better part of the year coming up with the perfect trick to play on the tween tormentors — one that involves her friends, twins Shane and Shana, dressing up as particularly ghastly pumpkin-headed figures. The siblings seem to get too into their spooky roles, however, and the joke quickly gets out of hand, threatening to ruin yet another Hallowe’en. Only this time Drew fears that it may be for good….

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It’s not a proper spooky season in this house until I pick up a Goosebumps book or two. It’s one of the traditions I look forward to the most. I never read the books as a kid, but I did watch some of the show, and so I consider these precious, goofy books time capsules, allowing me a brief glimpse back to a time for which I am exceedingly, embarrassingly nostalgic. I am a ‘90s kid, what can I tell you?

I’m still working my way through the series (should read more than a couple a year, maybe), so I’ve only read a handful of the books. Attack of the Jack-O’-Lanterns did not turn out to be a favorite, but it is a very solid entry. The characters are annoying as anything, sure, but in that charming ha-ha-all-kids-are-maniacs kind of way that Stine is so good at portraying. It’s set on Hallowe’en. It features pumpkin-headed monsters. I don’t need much to enjoy some Goosebumps

One of the episodes of the TV show I remember the most was called “Awesome Ants” (curiously not adapted from any book of the original series, but from a later short story instead). It featured a memorable and preposterous ending that had — uhh spoilers I guess — an entire suburban neighborhood enclosed in glass, with gigantic ants towering over the new human vivarium. It stuck with me because it played into some of my more particular anxieties: of being perpetually stuck in a singular space; of being intensely creeped out by North American suburbs consisting of countless identically bland houses. The climax of Jack-O’-Lanterns involves a similar setting and situation, and I appreciated the skeeved-out feeling it gave me. 

I watched the television adaptation of this for the first time last year and it was perfectly terrible.

WHAT LIVES IN THE WOODS by Lindsay Currie — 🎃

blog - what lives in the woods by lindsay currieAspiring writer and Agatha Christie aficionado Ginny Anderson is looking forward to spending her summer break attending a mystery writing workshop with her best friend. Plans swiftly derailed when her dad, who restores old crumbling buildings to their former glory for a living, is hired to renovate the Woodmoor estate, a sprawling manor in the outskirts of Lake Michigan, and wants to bring the family along. The mansion is the subject of many rumors in the neighboring town: of creatures that stalk the surrounding woods; of inhospitable spirits that still haunt the antique abode. Impressionable Ginny finds herself frightened at the prospect of spending her summer in a house of horrors and she wishes she could just go back home, to her friend and her workshop. Her frustration turns out to be greater than her fear though, and,  determined to emulate the heroes written by her personal hero, she sets out to either find enough proof to convince her parents to leave the dreadful place — especially after she encounters a ghastly presence that would very much like the same — or to solve the mystery at Woodmoor once and for all. ⠀

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Lindsay Currie’s What Lives in the Woods was originally going to be a buddy read, chosen because my friend and I were both under the impression that it was going to be a middle grade horror full of forest frights, which was the mood we were after. I began reading it first, though, and quickly found myself frustrated by the fact that this seemed to be very much a haunted house story. Which is fine — love a good haunting — just not what I was expecting. Yes, the back blurb does mention the haunted house element, but look at that cover! At that title! What else are we supposed to think? Not to mention the fact that creepy beings stalking the woods are frequently mentioned in the opening chapters. They are, sadly, a no-show in this spooky story. Maybe they’re being set up for a sequel? I don’t know!⠀

So I was disappointed. Which is tragic because the story taken on its own is actually fairly decent. There’s a historical mystery that’s interesting, even if it’s only really explored during the last few chapters when it could have been the focus from the outset. Currie is excellent at writing tense scenes with unnerving imagery (there’s a particularly good jump scare, and those are very hard to pull off in written form). But again, this is a supernatural mystery more than it is horror, and so those types of scenes end up feeling a little out of place, as if they’re from a different story. 

This may be a classic case of judging a book by its cover, But coming from a design background so I believe that packaging and presentation are important. They provide the context, form the filter through which the content within will be viewed. My expectations were shaped by a display that evokes a certain narrative that is different from the one within, and I just think it only does it a disservice, in the end. Granted this particular criticism is directed more at the publisher, as authors rarely have any say in how their work is marketed. Currie wrote an immanently readable book that I would have enjoyed more under different circumstances.

MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — 🎃

blog - mexican gothic by silvia moreno-garciaI started Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic for Hallowe’en last year. I was enjoying it, too, noting how Moreno-Garcia had the Gothic undertones and atmosphere utterly down. But then I dropped it, and I couldn’t quite tell you why. Well, I could: there was a pandemic going on, sucking the joy out of everything and anything at the drop of a hat. It was — and still is, depressingly — a thing. So I decided to leave it for this next Hallowe’en season, and as it approached, I found myself excited to pick the book back up again. 

You can imagine my disappointment when I found that I did not enjoy it as much as I expected. Which is nothing but a shame as all the elements were still there: Moreno-Garcia’s writing is gorgeous, pitch-perfect in its baroque tone and flowery wordage; the atmosphere — atmosfear — it evokes is palpable and practically seeps from the page; Noemí, our intrepid bon vivant of a heroine with the quick wit and indomitable will, is simply marvelous; its villains are suitably abhorrent, showcasing as they do a grotesque version of white entitlement towards other culture’s religions and lands and bodies; the story’s central theme of colonialism and its ruinous blight of a legacy is one that quite literally hits close to home as someone who lives in an actual modern day colony.

And yet… it didn’t quite connect with me. Perhaps that was because of the above-mentioned epidemic exhaustion; but more likely it was just that the story felt distant, with too many of its true horrors told rather than shown; evils obscured rather than exposed. Moreno-Garcia keeps her protagonist in the literal dark for much of the novel, and at arm’s length from many of the other characters, a detachment the reader feels by extension. A dense fog envelopes High Place, this story’s setting. At times it felt like a similar gloom shrouded this novel, and perhaps it just proved too thick for this particular lector to penetrate.

Whatever the case may have been, Moreno-Garcia’s prowess is undeniable, and I don’t regret reading this weird, visceral, phantasmagoric vision of hers.

THE WOODS ARE ALWAYS WATCHING by Stephanie Perkins — 🎃

blog - the woods are always watching by stephanie perkinsJosie and Neena are best friends about to graduate high school and heading off in different directions — or Neena is, at least. Josie enrolled in a city college and will stay at home, while Neena is bound for glamorous California. Feeling a mix of melancholy and resentment the pair plan a getaway hiking through the local North Carolina mountains, in the hopes the adventure will create meaningful, unforgettable memories before they part ways.

Their plans are quickly unraveled, however, as both environment and emotions seem to be working against them. Neither of them have any worthwhile outdoors experience, and so they are soon overwhelmed by the elements. Adding to that is the pair’s pent up personal drama, which comes to a head on their very first night where bitter words are shared in the dark. Not wanting to abandon what could be their last ever exploit together, they continue their trek through the woods in stubborn, stony silence. On their last day they decide to follow a blaze path, informal trails created by amateur hikers that make guideposts out of trees through marks and other signs. A sudden downpour makes them lose their way, and then tragedy strikes when Josie falls through a sinkhole and suffers a particularly gruesome injury. Neena is reluctant to leave her friend alone, but with no phone service and night quickly falling, she decides to brave the forest in search of help. But the watchful woods seem to have other plans for the pair of friends….

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Like most people (at least those who regularly watched Vlogbrothers circa 2009) I first learned of Stephanie Perkins due to Anna and the French Kiss, a gentle gem of a romance novel that kicked off a series of similarly sentimental stories. Romance became Perkin’s brand, and so — like most people — I was surprised when she suddenly dropped her slasher throwback of a novel There’s Someone Inside Your House (which just got the adaptation treatment over on Netflix) a couple of years ago. It seemed like such a turn. But I was already a fan of her writing, and it came out just around spooky season, so I gave it a shot. I dug it a great deal. I remember Perkins getting a lot of flak for that novel for being derivative and full of stereotypes. I could see where the criticism came from, but I didn’t really mind — there’s no genre that’s as cannibalistic as horror, after all, constantly feeding off of its own self. It’s part of the appeal. So I liked it enough that when The Woods Are Always Watching, a spiritual sequel of sorts, was announced, I awaited it with anticipation.

It didn’t disappoint, although I suspect it will get a lot of the same kind of criticism as its predecessor did. But once more, I did not mind. I enjoyed this ticking time bomb of a novel, which starts off slow, almost hesitantly, ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels before finally releasing it in a cannonade of catastrophe and catharsis during the book’s final half.

I went into The Woods fairly cold, which turned out to both harm and help my reading experience. I knew only that it was a horror story set somewhere in the Appalachians, which is honestly enough description for me to be certain that I will be thoroughly freaked out, as that particular mountain system fascinates me as much as it fills me with dread — blame it on assumptions and stereotypes shaped by years of macabre media consumption. I did not know what form the antagonistic force was going to take: if it was going to be a supernatural specter, or a more realistic, grit-and-grime menace. For the first hundred pages the text made it seem like either one could have been likely.

SPOILERS AHEAD

So I admit to being initially disappointed when it turned out to be the latter.  As the book went on, though, with Perkins packing on the terror and trepidation, I understood the kind of story she was aiming to tell: a heightened version of what far too many women suffer through at the hands of men, the sort of experiences that are the root of very real fears and anxieties they can experience while among us. Josie and Neena are stalked and threatened by men in the woods here, but it’s terrifyingly telling that their story could have been set literally anywhere else — with men in elevators or subway cars or quiet streets — and depressingly little would change in the way of details. 

Two girls walk into the woods, Josie thought. But the story wasn’t a fairy tale. They hadn’t dropped a trail of bread crumbs, discovered a gingerbread cottage with sugar-paned windows, or shoved an old witch into a flaming stove. Nor was it a ghost story, traded in whispers around smoky campfires. It wasn’t even an urban legend. Their story was flesh and bone. Urgent and real.

Perkins offers up a tight, tense thriller of survival, with two protagonists who feel real: smart and resourceful but also obnoxious bordering on unlikeable — kids, in other words, a fact that makes their ordeal all the more harrowing, as you can’t help but hope they make it through the dark forest and into the light.

Content warning for mentions of rape, torture, stalking, and some graphic descriptions of gore.

DARK WATERS by Katherine Arden — 🎃

blog - dark waters by katherine ardenIt’s been months since their last terrifying encounter with Seth the smiling man, and friends Brian, Coco, and Ollie have been hitting the books. The misfortunes they suffered over winter break have left them thoroughly spooked, and they want to better prepare themselves for their next inevitable meaning with the stalking fiend. To that end, they have been reading as much about their town’s history of hauntings and other paranormal phenomena. Their paranoid behavior worries their respective parents, however, and so when Coco’s journalist mother suggests they join her on a tour of Lake Champlain while she’s out on assignment, they think the outing will help improve their moods. Only Brian’s parents are hesitant, thinking their son’s slipping grades and distracted demeanor are due to the influence of his new best friends. They allow Brian to go, but only if he promises to limit their time together for the rest of the school year.

They soon set sail, finding themselves among another classmate who also suffered through their harrowing first encounter with Seth and his scarecrows last fall, and who might remember more of the experience than they initially realized. Before digging deeper into that particular mystery, the voyage meets an abrupt end when a creature who may or may not be Lake Champlain’s famous sea monster sinks the boat, leaving the survivors stranded on a nearby island — one that is not recorded in any known charts. A liminal space that will be the grounds for yet another of the smiling man’s tormenting games, the challenges of which threaten to send the group of friends over the proverbial edge.

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I have read and thoroughly enjoyed all three of the books currently out in Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces seasonal quartet, but if I’m being totally honest here, I have a hard time remembering any of the plots from the previous entries. Not in any great detail at least. But it took reading Dark Waters for me to realize that what I look for in these stories — and other middle grade horror affairs — are not intricate plots or intense personal drama, but rather atmosphere (or as a friend called it, “atmosfear“). Which really should have been obvious to me in retrospect: the one thing I’ve praised in all of these books so far has been Arden’s aptitude for ambiance, which borders on the astonishing. Consider the following evocative excerpt:

Spring in East Evansburg, and the rain poured down like someone had turned on a hose in the sky. High in the Green Mountains, the rain turned snow into slush and turned earth into mud. It washed ruts into roads and set creeks to roaring. It sluiced down the roof of a small inn perched on a hillside above town.

The rain had begun at dawn, but now it was that long blue springtime twilight, getting close to dark, and the inn looked cozy in the soft light. The walls of the inn were white wooden clapboards, neatly painted. The roof was red metal. The sign said MOOSE LODGE, and it swung, creaking, in the spring wind.

And this is just what opens the story. 

In addition to the excellent mood-setting, I’ve also come to admire the way she writes her set-pieces: slowly building them up before exploding them into tight, tense — and most importantly, fun — scenes. They do a lot in terms of moving the story along at a steady, stirring pace.

All in all, I enjoyed reading Dark Waters a lot, and would actually put it above the previous two books. I found the writing sharper and more focused than the earlier novels, which I attribute to the isolated setting of the island. Also, this is a creature feature, and those are often just great fun. But I love this series as a whole, and will eagerly anticipate its next and final entry. It’s supposed to be set during the summer, which will give me the perfect excuse to make spooky summer reads a proper tradition.

A SEASON WITH THE WITCH by J.W. Ocker — 🎃

blog - a season with the witch by j.w. ockerI started J.W. Ocker’s A Season with the Witch late in September, wanting to get into the spirit of the season a little earlier this year. I finished it on a gray, gusty evening a couple of days into October, and honestly I couldn’t have asked for a better atmosphere (marred slightly by the fact that I was getting over a cold). It really is the perfect read to set the stage for Hallowe’en — Ocker’s enthusiasm for the holiday is infectious, and you can’t help but be swept up by the magical pandemonium he chronicles in this spookiest of travelogues. 

This is a book about Salem, naturally. About the charm and chaos and contradictions that constitute the Witch City. To write it, Ocker and his family spent an entire October experiencing the haunted holiday along with Salem and its other guests. It’s an excellent, enviable premise, and Ocker makes the most of it, venturing out into the hustle and bustle of the crowded streets of downtown Salem during the days before retreating back to a rented house or, more often than not, a themed restaurant or bar (wherein he would imbibe colorfully-named concoctions like “Candy Corntini” and “Satan’s Cider”) in the evenings to collect and record his thoughts. The result is a loving nocturne to both a city and the holiday that, for better or for worse, it has come to embody.

The book is as much a history primer as it is a travel guide, with the first handful of chapters dedicated to Salem in the Puritan era — particularly focusing, of course, on the infamous Witch Trials. Specifically Ocker tries to figure out just why an event that was, in comparison to other similar inquisitions of the time, relatively inconsequential, and that most of which didn’t even happen in Salem proper but rather in the surrounding vicinities, came to shape the identity and soul of a single place so thoroughly — not to mention latch itself so fervently to our collective unconscious that the mere appearance of the word “witch” makes one think of Salem. It’s as close to a central theme as this book has, and Ocker tries to offer up different conclusions by interviewing, through the lens of this thesis, several individuals with varying ties to the city. We never really get a definitive answer, though, but the point is that maybe there isn’t one. Cities are made of inconsistencies and complexities as much as they are made of brick and mortar.

It’s a duality and discrepancy those who hold up Salem as a haven for Hallowe’en have to contend with, and which constitutes one of my favorite aspects of the book. A real tragedy happened there, minor or not, and viewpoints differ as to whether adding a weighty layer of morbid celebration counts as disgrace, or if it’s yet another example of human resilience against adversity. Of people, as Stephen King once wrote, dancing in defiance of the dark. Ocker favors the latter:

Everything in the entire world is founded on tragedy. Our country, every country. There’s not a society on the planet that doesn’t have ancient tragedies clawing at its back. The past is a giant corpse. But life isn’t a perpetual state of regret and mourning over those tragedies, it’s taking those tragedies, giving them their due in proportion, learning from them (or not), working to prevent them from happening again (or not), and then we all party because we only have so many holidays in our lives.

A bit irreverent, to be sure, but I stand with Ocker (and King) on this one.

In truth, history is what makes up the bulk of Season, and if there’s one gripe with the book is that at times it seems like too much History and not enough Hallowe’en. Which is funny, because we do actually get quite a bit Hallowe’en. Ocker guides us through the myriad of eerie events, creepy celebrations, and dreadful destinations Salem offers not only during the month of October, but often year-round as well. Everything seems joyous and hokey in equal measure, and it is written in such a fond, earnest manner that it led to the Witch City becoming a personal de rigueur destination. There’s a hell of a lot of Hallowe’en in here. But you still end up expecting more, especially based on the promise of the cover. It’s just as well, though. Hallowe’en always feels like too much and also somehow never enough. It’s part of the ephemeral nature of the holiday.

“You can’t fit a city into a book,” Ocker writes in the epilogue. Which is true: cities are unwieldy by nature, and too full of people (beautiful, frustrating, obfuscating people) to be entirely understood. But you can capture a certain feeling, a certain sense of a season. Ocker let us know back in the introduction: Salem is weird. Salem is absurd. Salem is magic. If the intention was to show us just how weird and absurd and magical the Witch City could get, then A Season with the Witch most definitely met its goal.