Halloween Miscellany! Scary Reads and Pop Culture!

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Isn’t this print wonderfully creepy and compelling? I’m a big fan of Gustave Doré; this is one of his illustrators for Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

Greetings to all you denizens of the internet, on this dark and ghastly time of year!  Do you celebrate the Day, complete with your “sexy witch” costume or Freddy Kruger mask, lawn bestrown with cobwebs, plastic skeletons and those huge truly yucky fake spiders that are so unfortunately popular with Janakay’s neighbors?

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Janakay is severely arachnophobic and doesn’t like walking past certain houses in her neighborhood during Halloween week! Needless to say, these folks did NOT consult HER about their Halloween decorations . . .

In my neck of the woods (North American, mid-Atlantic suburban) Halloween decorations have become increasingly common.  They range from folks who clearly regard Halloween as a very, very important milestone in their shopping and celebratory life . . .

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In dawn’s early light, those giant spiders are rather unpleasantly realistic!

to those of a minimalist bent who nevertheless want to mark the occasion . . . .

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The pumpkin face didn’t come out well in this photo — it’s actually pretty sinister, even if the “ghost” hanging on the porch is a bit laid back!

to the oh so tasteful, who actually changed the permanent outdoor light fixtures (on the left of the gate and the right of the porch) to match their purple Halloween lights!

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A bit blurry (Halloween night here is appropriately rainy and stormy) but you get the idea  . . .

And — the neighborhood’s pièce de résistance!

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To paraphrase that eminent stylist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Halloween here is “a dark and stormy night!”  Great for ghostly atmosphere but lousy for photos! Still, squint hard and you can see the red thing on the right is a dragon!  With movable wings!  What will they think of next?

Just as Halloween decorations are becoming more common and elaborate, Halloween costumes have taken a giant leap forward from the cardboard witches’ hats and superman masks of my childhood!  Now we have the adorably traditional:

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Grandma is really rocking this one!

The “traditional with a twist”:

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Jon Snow White!

And — the Topical:

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This company also offers a “Miss Impeachment” costume (includes a tiara, beauty queen sash and a whistle blower necklace) as well as a sexy “Beyond Burger” getup, complete with a headband bearing the label “Plant Based!”

Well, it’s all certainly very interesting, isn’t it?  Do you follow the lead of these festive folks or do you (like Janakay on a bad year) pretend the day just isn’t happening, as you close the blinds, turn on the TV and ignore the trick or treaters ringing your door bell so you can eat all the best candy yourself in blessed solitude?  Do you have your very own Halloween rituals involving none of the above or do you perhaps hail from a country or follow a tradition that doesn’t acknowledge Halloween?  This space is all about sharing, so — please share with the rest of us how, or even if, you mark the day!

PART SECOND: SCARY READS IN GENERAL.  THOUGHTS, ANYONE?

I bet you never thought I’d get around to the books, did you?  Ha!  Tricked you!  With Jankay, it’s always about the books; no matter how meandering the path, it always comes back to the books; books underlie everything!  And there are such wonderful books associated with this time of year, aren’t there?  And don’t we all have our favorite reads? My own preferred brand of horror tends towards the classic, away from gore and slasher (so very, very unsubtle, don’t you think?) towards the “oh my god, something moved in the corner of my eye” variety.  In other words, away from the Freddy Kruger/Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more towards the Shirley Jackson, Haunting of Hill House end of the horror scale.   In fact, isn’t the whole horror phenomenon fascinating?  Why is it that we humans love so much to scare ourselves and isn’t it interesting how we all vary in what we regard as particularly horrifying?  I was actually settling in to spend some happy hours researching this topic when I realized that I’d be posting this on Christmas if I didn’t wrap it up (speaking of which, have you seen Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas?  If not, stop reading this instance and go watch!)  Without further ado, here’s a few selections from my short list of creepy reads; these are just things I thought of, fairly quickly and are listed in no particular order:

Bram Stoker’s Dracula: All the ornate Victorian prose can’t obscure one of the scariest stories every written.  I re-read it every now and then and it scares me almost as much as it did when I was fifteen years old, alone for the weekend and very unwisely deciding to try this old 19th century thing.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House.  Some houses are indeed born evil and some writers were born to tell us about them.  Truly one of the most terrifying tales ever conceived, written by an author of breathtaking talent working at the height of her powers.  It would be a shame not to read the book but if you’re in a visual mood Netflix did a recent series that’s sort of o.k.  Far better IMO is the 1963 black and white movie, starring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris.

Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire.  Anne Rice has built up such a fan base and churned out so much over-written drivel over her long career (my apologies to any fans out there, but we are sharing our honest opinions aren’t we?) that it’s easy to forget just how very good she can be.  This is my favorite Anne Rice novel, an incredibly atmospheric take on the vampire mythos, set in French colonial New Orleans and 19th century Paris.  Erotic, baroque, stomach churning and beautiful, it isn’t easy to forget (the Theatre des Vampires, where vampires feed on victims for the audience’s amusement, is as horrifying as anything I’ve ever read).  Rice’s The Witching Hour, a tale of two centuries of the Mayfair Witch family and its attendant demon Lasher, ranging from its origin in medieval Scotland to its dark doings in contemporary San Francisco & New Orleans, is also pretty good.  Word of advice: avoid the numerous sequels and spinoffs of both novels.

H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories:  H.P. has fallen out of favor these days because he is, let’s face it, a racist, a fact that’s painfully obvious when you start examining his work.  In this area and with this writer, I agree with Victor LaValle (an award winning African American horror writer) that you can reject Lovecraft’s views while still appreciating his work (if you’re new to Lovecraft, the NY Times’ recent review of his annotated works is pretty useful).  I think Lovecraft is at his best when writing short stories, which he mostly sets in a frightening cosmos in which humanity is largely irrelevant to the ancient and terrifying gods who are attempting to reenter the human dimensions.  My own personal favorites among Lovecraft’s stories are “Pickman’s Model;” “The Dunwich Horror;” “The Thing On the Door Step;” and “The Rats in the Walls.”

Additional “dark writings” I’ve enjoyed (and still periodically re-read), without experiencing quite the visceral feelings evoked by Jackson, Lovecraft and Stoker:

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla:  another vampire tale (I’m particularly fond of vampires, obviously).  My immediate reaction after reading this for the first time was –“what’s the big deal?”  Then I had nightmares for a week.  A classic, whether you give it the psychological interpretation or not.

Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby:  devil worship for our era and a very shrewd commentary on a certain 20th century milieu.  I’ve never read the sequel — why tamper with perfection?

Edgar Allan Poe: anything, really.  If you go for his long poem “The Raven,” try to find Doré’s illustrations (I included one at the beginning of the post.  They’re all great).  For sheer horror, my pick is his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Stephen King’s The Shining:  I’m ordinarily not a big Stephen King fan, but I’ve read this one twice.  Despite the re-read, however, this is one of the rare cases where I prefer the film (a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece) to its source material.  Although I didn’t much care for King’s sequel, Doctor Sleep, nothing will keep me away from seeing the film, which will be released November 8th.

William Blatty’s The Exorcist.  I loved it when I read it; a second re-read about twenty years ago left me a bit cold so it’s ripe for a third review.  About the movie there’s no doubt at all — it’s really, really scary.  In fact Mr. Janakay and I are having our own little Halloween celebration tonight (too bad for the trick or treaters who come by after 7 PM!) by watching the director’s cut at our nearby cinema art house!

Poppy Z. Brite’s 1990’s work (she later ventured into dark comedy):  have any of you read this very interesting writer?  She’s so, so southern Gothic and so off-beat; naturally enough she’s a resident of New Orleans!  I have to admit I literally couldn’t read Exquisite Corpse, a novel centering on a homosexual, necrophiliac, cannibalistic serial killer (even for something that could be interpreted as a political metaphor, I do set some limits), but I found her early novels, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, atmospheric (she’s got the lost, southern hippy thing down pat) atmospheric and absorbing.  Poppy’s appeal is no doubt a bit limited, but if you’re into over the top, you may find her worth checking out.

Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.  This one barely made my cut, as it’s more of a mystery-thriller than a proper horror novel but still — it was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award.  The book begins with a suicide and continues with an investigation into the dark and violent work of a reclusive horror film director.  I’m a sucker for novels implying that our perceived “reality” rests on dark and unperceived secrets; I also found the interactive aspects of the story, which drive some readers nuts, wildly inventive and interesting.

My list, as I said at the beginning, is short and I’d love to expand it.  Do you have any dark reads you’d like to share?

PART THIRD:  MY 2019 HALLOWEEN READ(S)

My own little Halloween tradition (it actually relates more to autumn in general, than to Halloween per se) is to read something a little dark, a little eerie; something that reminds me that the universe encompasses more than we ordinarily see or perceive; that perhaps our “reality” isn’t the only reality out there.  A bit mystical, I know, but then rationality, while explaining much, doesn’t quite cover it all, does it?  It always seems appropriate to me, as the darkness literally closes in with the year’s waning, to read something a little dark.  What better time than Halloween?  It’s a time to forget the cute costumes and the fake spiders and remember that every culture I can think of had some ritual for celebrating the harvest, the time of bounty before nature’s (temporary) death.  I didn’t have a lot of time this year, but in my energetic and continuing effort to evade the art work of the Italian Renaissance I decided I absolutely was not going to forego my Halloween read!  The deciding factor here was a really odd compulsion to return to a novel I first read many years ago, The Night Country by the American writer Stewart O’Nan.

Have any of you read or reviewed O’Nan’s novels?  O’Nan appears to be one of those writers who’s hard to classify because he seems able to write about very diverse subjects in an equally convincingly way and — he’s written a lot!  A quick trip to Wiki discloses that in 1996 O’Nan was named by Granta as one of “America’s Best Young Novelists” and he’s been very respectfully reviewed by such publications as the New York Times.  I’ve always meant to read O’Nan’s novels (I’ve a couple languishing now on the shelf) but, sad to say, the only one I’ve gotten around to is Night Country, which I first read shortly after it was published in 2004.  I was drawn to Night Country because — you guessed it — it’s a ghost story and I was looking for a dark read.  I both got, and didn’t get, what I was looking for.  Night Country is a ghost story, but it’s a haunting without the chains.  Along with its supernatural elements, it’s also a beautifully written (and occasionally very funny) tale of disappointment and regret; a realistic slice of life in a small town and of bad choices and bad luck.  The whole thing was a bit too subtle for me and very much not what I was looking for at the time, i.e., a second Shirley Jackson Haunting of Hill House type read.  And yet, it stayed with me, and this year just seemed to pop into my mind, along with the return of rain, falling leaves and the chill of dark mornings.

O’Nan sets his novel in the small Connecticut town of Avondale.  It is Halloween night and his three protagonists are the ghosts of three teenagers who died the previous Halloween, victims of a terrible car crash resulting from a high speed pursuit by a local traffic cop.  Two teenagers survived the crash — Tim who can’t forgive himself for having lived when his girlfriend and buddies did not, and Kyle, a once arrogant bad boy reduced by severe brain damage to a shell of his former self.  The three ghosts have their own agenda, which plays out in the course of the novel as we see the effect of the tragedy on the cop, Kyle’s Mother (her proper name is never given) and a community that is still coming to terms with its grief.

As one of its contemporary reviews noted, Night Country, despite its “goblin-like atmosphere,” is a chilling, rather than a scary, read.  It’s a wonderful depiction of a closely knit and prosperous community, where all appears safe.  Or, this disquieting novel asks, is it safe, really?  The woods surrounding Avondale are mighty dark and mysterious, its creeks and marshlands are dangerous and one chance act can affect the beautifully ordered rationality of many lives.  It was amazing how much I liked this book the second time around, how beautiful, subtle and — haunting —  I found the story.  If, like me in 2004, you’re looking for a purely traditional and scary read, best avoid Night Country, particularly as it’s a quiet book that requires patience and time.  If, on the other hand, you enjoy a Ray Bradbury type mix of the strange and the quotidian, Night Country just might be your next great autumn read.

If you’ve the patience, bear with me for one more paragraph and I’ll mention a very creepy book indeed, a fantastical (and fantastic) mixture of horror, fantasy and fairy tale called Follow Me To Ground, a debut novel by Sue Rainesford.  I found this one through a review in The Guardian, which described it far better than I can here.  It’s a dark, unnerving story of Ada and her father, non-humans who live and work their healing magic on nearby villagers, whom they refer to as “Cures.”  The Cures are grateful but wary (their perspective is given from time to time, in brief shifts away from Ada’s); the setting is realistic with overtones of myth (everyone, including Ada, is terrified of Sister Eel Lake, the home of carnivorous serpents) and the tale can be read on a number of levels.  All goes well, however, until Ada begins a sexual relationship with a human Cure of whom her father disapproves.  I know what you’re thinking but trust me — Romeo and Juliet this is not.  It’s a pretty brief novel (slightly less than 200 pages) and a perfect quick read for those dark autumn nights when the rain is beating against the window.

PART FOURTH: FUN LINKS

The Guardian’s List of Ten Books About Cemeteries (I may check out a couple of these!)

“I was so scared I took it back to the library: the books that scare horror authors” (amusing note: Anne Rice was too frightened to finish Dracula!)

“I didn’t sleep well for months:” the films that terrified The Guardian’s writers as kids

And, just to prove that I occasionally read something other than The Guardian’s take on books, “Globetrotting:” the New York Times sneak preview of books coming out in 2019 from around the world

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Halloween Miscellany! Scary Reads and Pop Culture!

  1. Janakay… what a wonderful post this is!

    You’re tempting me with so many titles. As always, I intersect with you in so many of the titles and taste. Like you, I’m a Shirley Jackson person, not a Freddy Kruger. I’m into the ‘disturbing’ much more than the ‘gore’. Even though I’m fascinated by Tarantino’s Kill Bill, for example, but that’s to me different than scary, it’s more an exploration of violence to twist it until it reaches the opposite, which would be irony and sarcasm.

    Yes to so much, Dracula, Burton, The Shining. The Exorcist, I’ve only watched the film and didn’t know about the book. All the books you mention that I haven’t read, I’m very intrigued, but I know that I must read O’Nan, -because of the Bradbury’s mention-. And the brevity of the last title is appealing too.

    Now that I’ve finished MD (and I’m going to comment on your other comment, ha ha ha), I do need something lighter, definitely. I know I’ll come back to it, as you said. It was nothing less than amazing, that book. Just a perfect universe to abscond myself in.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Silvia: thanks for the kind words, as always! I must admit that I did think of you and your love of Bradbury when I read O’Nan’s Night Country. If my memory is correct, I believe one of the reviewers mentioned that O’Nan’s prologue was deliberately “evocative” of Bradbury’s Something Wicked. For a book with three ghostly protagonists, O’Nan’s novel is surprisingly unghostly, for the most part. One of the most interesting characters is “Kyle’s Mom,” who’s coping with the care and maintenance of a severely injured teenager; the depiction of her and her husband’s efforts to maintain their marriage is incredible if sad. Even more realistic is O’Nan’s portrayal of the cop, a totally believable and very flawed human being. And those three ghosts! Very, very realistic teenagers (at least to me! I’d bow to your expertise in this area as the mother of two!) with their own, very sinister agenda. Not a cheery read, by any means, but I found it very moving and very worthwhile. O’Nan has definitely moved up several spots on my TBR list!
    I obviously loved Follow Me to Ground and felt a bit guilty about not giving it more attention, but then I was running out of steam by the time I got to it (all that Halloween candy! Maybe my sugar high was ebbing!). If you’re interested in reading it, check out The Guardian review, which was really good (i.e., perceptive and thorough). If you want to read it, I’ll send you my copy if you want — I found a cheap copy on Amazon (I was lucky it arrived before Halloween), won’t read it again and it’s not scheduled for US publication for another couple of months.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. After Ruthiella’s comment and yours, I’m going to look for O’Nan’s Night Country. How compelling. I don’t mind reading sad books when they are well written and have credible characters.

      I’m going to take you up on Follow Me to Ground, that way I’ll have your address. It’s about time I have it, since there’s always books here and there I may feel for sending your way, specially as Christmas is approaching! And how special that’d be, 🙂 to have it before its official publication.

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      1. Silvia: I hope when you get to it you enjoy O’Nan. I’m going to check out some of his other books as well; as he seems to be a bit of a chameleon who writes in different genres I suspect he’s hard to categorize. I’ve been meaning to read his Emily, Alone for quite some time now; hopefully I’ll get to it in this lifetime!
        I’m so glad you want Follow Me! I love passing books along to a fellow reading addict who, like me, is clearly mainlining and always in need of a fix! (hopefully, I’m not pushing this metaphor too far). Either use “contact” on my site or email me at janakay@youmightaswellread.com and I’ll send you my address and stuff.

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  3. Hi Janakay,
    I used to enjoy participating in Halloween but over the past few years I have fallen completely out of the habit. Maybe next year I will break out my modest decorations and hand out candy again. Where I live in Southern California elaborate Halloween decorations for the yard and home are also very common. I enjoy looking at them all when I walk my dogs. I do have a DVD of Nightmare Before Christmas which I have never watched. I will remedy that.

    Thanks for the list of creepy reads. I have read most of them with the exception of Poe, Lovecraft, Blatty and Brite. I think I am not that easy to scare in book form. I have to sort of psych myself out when reading. Whereas with film or T.V. I am a total scaredy-cat even in broad daylight. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in Dracula when I read it a few years ago. I did find the section with the ghost ship in Whistable (?) legitimately scary. But not the rest really, though I enjoyed the book for other reasons. Thanks for the links! I will check them out.

    This is your second (or third) recommendation for O’Nan to me indirectly. Maybe I will read Night Country for next year’s RIP. I typically don’t read horror or ghost stories so I kind of have to save them up for the season. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved Dracula. But it was because of the psychology, and I love the epistolary format in books. I’m also scaredy-cat for films. All the scary movies I’ve watched I did when adolescent or young. Something has happened to my psyche but I can’t submit myself to the scares anymore. Even the prospect of reading Stephen King scares me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ruthiella: I hope you enjoy Nightmare. I have a mixed reaction to Tim Burton in general (he CAN be a bit much) and I don’t usually like animation, but I thought this was really good — just enough of a witty dark edge to offset the occasional sappy moment. I don’t think anyone could accuse Burton of a surfeit of sentimentality regarding Christmas (which can also be too much at times).

        Re Halloween: I loved it as a kid, mostly because in my day and time the kids were allowed to just roam around on their own at night for a few hours. Very different from the carefully supervised trick/treating in my current neighborhood! (under today’s standards my parents would probably be reported to social services or something!) I just loved getting away from the adults and then pigging out on all that grubby candy. I retain a vestigial fondness for the holiday but don’t do much more these days than answer the door and hand out hygenic little pre-packaged treats, motivated less by generosity than social pressure! (well, I DO like seeing the kids’ costumes. Somewhat).

        I wish my creepy read list had been longer and better. One of these days I may do a real bibliography of horror fiction (a remnant of my librarian training — I love doing stuff like that). I’m very fond of a good horror read and find the whole genre really fascinating — WHY do we enjoy scaring ourselves so much? I also think it’s interesting how horror bleeds over (bad pun intended) into fantasy, sci-fi and fairy tales making all these various types of literature hard to isolate and classify. Isn’t it odd as well, how there really aren’t all that many great horror novels? Also, how many more writers seem to be working in that genre these days? It’s almost like its the perfect genre for our very horrific times.

        I’m not really surprised that our reactions to Dracula differed so much. As I said in my post (or more accurately, tried to), WHAT is horrible is as personal to us as our DNA. Also, I think the whole reading experience is, sometimes at least, bound up in memories & experiences of a particular time & place (I got into this a bit with my post on Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale & sequel). I read Dracula at age 15, expecting not too much except another boring Victorian novel, when I was alone & pretty much isolated; I did most of my reading in the middle of the night. If I had read it ten years later, expecting a horror class, in a brightly lit grad dorm room or something, I doubt if the novel would have had so much immediate or lingering impact.

        Poppy Z. Brite is definitely an individual taste — comparable in some ways to whether you like anchovies, or very strong blue cheese or — whatever. I like her in limited doses and mostly because certain aspects of a couple of her novels remind me of the southern hippy/artsy type kids I knew an aeon ago (she got Missing Mile, North Carolina spot on). I’m also not sure how Blatty holds up; on my second read I sort of OD’ed on all those wise, worldly priests. I did see The Exorcist again last night for the umpteenth time and must say that IT is as great as ever (and still shocking).

        I hope you’re doing o.k. down in southern California, safe from the fires. I really love the state and it’s sickening to think of the devastation that’s going on there now.

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      2. Silvia: know what you mean about changes in the psyche! I used to adore amusement park rides and can still remember the moment when I actually was physically unable to get on a roller coaster! I think the same things happen with movies or books — our sensibilities and assessments of both can change radically over the years!

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