Halloween Book Review: The Halloween Encyclopedia, Second Edition (2011) by Lisa Morton

This is the critical reference work on the traditions, rituals, symbology, mythology, and folklore of Halloween organized in A-Z encyclopedic fashion. I did not have the pleasure of reading the first edition, but the second edition is certainly definitive.

Keep in mind that this is not the reference work for a detailed discussion of every horror film that obliquely references the holiday (though appendices begin to compile lists of key works of fiction and film on the subject); this is a detailed look at the traditional origins and customs of the holiday itself. I found it impossible to conceive of a significant element, theme, trope, or symbol related to Halloween that Morton does not discuss. (You may be able to come up with an item that Morton and I could not, but I have my doubts.) The encyclopedia also includes articles on affiliated holidays and festivals (e.g., Guy Fawkes Day/Night, the Mexican Day of the Dead, Martinmas, Devil’s Night, etc.) I should note that some of the entries in this volume seem, at first blush, to be only tangentially related to the specific Halloween holiday (e.g., entries on “fairies” and “zoos”), but Morton always does a good job of tying these items to the broader themes of Halloween. I appreciated the appendices that cover, as noted, an annotated review of key written and filmic works on the holiday, along with a thorough chronology of Halloween and a highly useful bibliography of secondary works on Halloween and its precursors.

I would actually like to see Morton undertake a third edition, or more likely, a companion volume, perhaps with a co-author, to offer a similar, detailed exploration of Halloween-related literature and films. She’s begun compiling the annotated bibliography and filmography, now I want to see her flesh these out into a full-length monograph or encyclopedia!

If you are a Halloween aficionado (as I am), you need to acquire this book. Highly recommended.

Buy the book on Amazon

Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Reading

I have been woefully remiss in updating my blog of late. And that is doubly annoying to me this month because October is probably my favorite month. It’s always had a special place in my heart. I love the change of seasons and the chill in the air, and it contains two of my favorite holidays: my birthday and Halloween. Last year on the blog — in celebration of Halloween — I did a book review a day on horror-themed books. That was a lot of fun to do, but also a lot of work, and I just haven’t had time this year. (I am finishing my dissertation, teaching a college course I didn’t know I would be teaching, and am undergoing the ritual hazing of the academic job market right now.) Well, apologizing for not updating more regularly doesn’t do any of us any good, but I do have some useful, interesting material for you until I can resume my normal posting schedule (whenever that might be).

Here we go:

First up, Subterranean Press has a new iteration of their fabulous pre-order sale. Order five or more pre-orders and you get 50% off. What a deal. I’ve done this myself previously, and it’s turned out great. I’m not sure if I’ll do it this go around, but I certainly want a copy of the new Glen Cook anthology at a minimum.

Second, if you’re interested in “weird fiction,” especially the classic stuff, you should know about a new weekly reading group on LibraryThing (“The Deep Ones”!) that reads one weird tale each week and discusses the story. I’m a lurker in the group, but I’ve been following along with the reading and the discussions thus far. It’s been a great introduction for me to some classic tales I had never read and an excuse to reread some old favorites. So far we have read “Shambleau” by C.L. Moore; “The Sword of Welleran” by Lord Dunsany; “Dreams in the Witch House” by H.P. Lovecraft ; “The Great God Pan” by Arthur Machen; and “The Yellow Sign” by Robert Chambers. You don’t have to be a member of the group to read the postings (someone correct me if I’m wrong about that), and if you’re at all interested in the topic, you’ll enjoy the discussions and the links to where you can locate copies of these stories in-print and online. If I had more time, I’d love to review each of these stories in detail here. Alas.

Last, but certainly not least, let me provide you with some additional reading suggestions, courtesy of Michael R. Collings, a gentleman and a scholar, who happens to have written quite a few horror novels you may not be familiar with. I will be reviewing one of his works here very soon. I have not yet had the pleasure of reading these, but I hope to soon. I don’t want to simply replicate his blog post that describes them in detail, so I will simply point you to that link. They all appear to be available for extremely reasonable prices on Amazon, particularly if you’re interested in eBook editions, and I can certainly vouch for Collings: he has a real way with words.

I promise to be back with some more posts by the end of the month, so until then, Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween to everyone! This Halloween/horror-themed review-a-day has been a fun experiment and one that I’m almost certainly going to repeat next year. Hope you enjoyed them. Now that I’ve decided to do it again next year, I have a much longer planning timeline, so next year I’ll be including a better mix of novels, graphic novels, and role-playing games (we were pretty heavy on the graphic novels this year because it’s easier to read a bunch of those in a single month).

And remember: The Great Pumpkin is coming!

Halloween Review: Halloweenland by Al Sarrantonio

This is the third and final (so far) novel by Al Sarrantonio in his Orangefield series that focuses on the “Halloween-themed” supernatural events that occur in a small town in upstate New York called Orangefield. The first two novels in the series are Horrorween (which collects the short stories “Hornets” and “The Pumpkin Boy” as well as the novella “Orangefield”) and Hallows Eve. Sarrantonio’s first two books in this series are surprisingly hard to find and I have not yet been able to do so. In any case, Halloweenland was my first exposure to Sarrantonio’s fiction. (Special thanks to jseger9000 on the contents of Horrorween!)

Note: This review features plot spoilers — read at your own risk.

The primary protagonist is Detective Bill Grant, an alcoholic widower who has spent a career dealing with the “weird shit” (as he calls it) that happens every Halloween season in Orangefield, New York. Many of these cases deal with the periodic appearance of “Samhain,” a foreboding figure whose appearance heralds impending doom and death. There are occasional allusions to some of the bizarre cases Grant has dealt with in the other Orangefield books, but they are adequately explained and I didn’t feel like I was missing out on a great deal having not read those. My interest in these previous cases was piqued, but not overly spoilered that I wouldn’t want to still read them. This time around, Grant must deal with a woman who is impregnated by her recently deceased husband – the book’s terrific opening depicts this (she doesn’t know he’s dead). The woman eventually gives birth to a daughter – deformed in some poorly-worded way and certainly not an ordinary baby – who is promptly whisked away by Samhain. As it turns out, this child heralds the potential end of the world (something Samhain is not exactly in favor of), and in a final mystic showdown, Samhain helps Grant in stopping her. I won’t delve any further into how these events unfold, save to mention that the antagonist Samhain is portrayed in what I felt was an increasingly sympathetic manner, and by the end of the novel, we get a taste of just who/what Samhain is.

Despite sharing many of the same themes as some of Ray Bradbury’s work (Halloween, autumnal spookiness, a dark carnival, etc.), Al Sarrantonio is not an evocative poet the way that Bardbury is. Sarrantonio’s prose is workmanlike and quick-moving. It’s perfectly fine for a thriller/horror novel. It doesn’t contain masterful word-weaving that will make you want to read it allowed to friends and family, but it also doesn’t interfere with the plot. Characterization of the human protagonists is very good; the antagonists (Samhain and the girl) are only hastily sketched out and could use some work, which weakened the novel’s climax for me.

It may be that I would have liked this book better had I read the first two Orangefield books, and while knowledge of them is by no means essential (I never felt lost), at least two other seemingly-important characters from the previous books come into play in the final quarter of the novel, so long-term readers of the series would likely enjoy encountering these characters once again.

My copy of Halloweenland also contains a copy of the novella “The Baby,” which is substantively identical to the first third of the novel, save that the ending chapter of “The Baby” was changed for the novel. While it’s nice to have a copy of “The Baby,” only the final few pages of it differ from what you’ve just read in Halloweenland, so there’s not all that much value added. For what it’s worth, I prefer the ending of “The Baby” to what happened in Halloweenland.

I give Halloweenland 3 stars out of 5. I wanted to like it more than the actual book warranted, but will probably still pick up Sarrantonio’s other Orangefield books when I see them.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: Hellboy Sourcebook and Roleplaying Game

This was Steve Jackson Games’ effort to produce a role-playing game (RPG) based on the Hellboy setting and characters. The book is handsomely bound the same size as all the Hellboy trade paperback collected editions and produced in full color using lots of great Mignola art. Keep in mind that this book was published in 2002 and only includes information on the characters and setting of Hellboy through the fifth Hellboy trade paperback collection. At the time of its publication, it was probably the single best source of setting information on the Hellboy universe. None of that information has since become invalidated, of course, but it’s woefully incomplete now.

It includes a fun introductory short story by Christopher Golden; a five-page comic of a very minor Hellboy adventure in India; the aforementioned setting information; a slightly retooled and stripped-down version of GURPS role-playing game mechanics for gaming in the Hellboy universe; game write-ups for Hellboy, his BPRD pals, all the major villains from the first five Hellboy collections, and some generic write-ups of various other supernatural critters; and an adventure that I didn’t find to be all that interesting (spoiler: old Nazi occultist hiding out in Timbuktu with an enslaved djinn servant).

Value for gamers: Well, if you want to do some gaming in the Hellboy universe using a “lite” version of GURPS Third Edition, then you’re all set. This book really does include all you need to get started, though you’ll want to pick up several additional GURPS books if you plan to continue gaming in the setting, since these books will significantly increase the amount of magic and weirdness you can introduce. If you’re a Hellboy fan and want to do some Hellboy universe gaming using another set of game mechanics (something a little lighter or more free-form than GURPS, for example), you should be able to do so using the write-ups provided here. There is a fair amount of GURPS jargon (necessarily and understandably) in the character, creature, and magic write-ups, but it’s all pretty self-explanatory. But for that, obviously, you’re going to have to do all the heavy lifting yourself. Mechanically, I think that GURPS works adequately for Hellboy, but it’s a bit clunky and showing its age. Character creation requires a good bit of familiarity with the game system because GURPS is one of those older games that attempts to provide minutely-detailed rules for simulating every skill and action that a character might try. Personally, I used to really like that, but now I’m much more favorably inclined to “rules-lite” games.

Value for non-gamers: Sadly, if you’re a Hellboy fan but either have an allergy to role-playing games or aren’t interested in them at all, there are few good reasons to pick up this book unless you’re a true completist. You would be better off picking up The Hellboy Companion, which is much more up-to-date than this “sourcebook” and doesn’t waste any space on game mechanics.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5 for an entertaining presentation and valiant effort at producing a Hellboy role-playing game. No one else has picked up the license after Steve Jackson Games’ license expired, so this is all we’ve got for now.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: Hellboy, Volume 8: Darkness Calls

This trade paperback collects the six-issue Hellboy: Darkness Calls series, along with two new epilogues and a sketchbook, making it perhaps the meatiest (in terms of page count) of all the Hellboy collections to date. Mike Mignola writes this one, per usual, and artwork is mostly done by Duncan Fegredo, with whom I wasn’t previously familiar, but his style is good and meshes well with Mignola’s, so it’s a pretty seamless hand-off.

Note: This review features plot spoilers — read at your own risk.

The story opens with the cursed Satanist Igor Bromhead (remember him from “Box Full of Evil”?) having summoned Hecate in an Italian crypt and Hellboy washed up on the shores of England. Hellboy has a nasty run-in with a conclave of witches and their familiars as well as the ghost of an infamous witch-hunter. Once again, Hellboy is confronted with his demonic origins and renounces his apparent destiny to rule the armies of Hell. He’s a god egg, that one. Then he’s promptly sent into a mystic dimension where the Russian witch Baba Yaga – one of Hellboy’s old foes – rules. And she’s still pretty annoyed with him over the fact that he shot out one of her eyes in their last encounter so she sends her minion, Koshchei the Deathless, as well as a veritable army of animated skeletons. Helboy encounters a number of classic figures from Slavic folklore before he can overcome Baba Yaga and escape from this land of eternal Russian winter.

I give this one 4.5 stars out of 5. A rollicking good Hellboy adventure, and the return of Baba Yaga and the exploration of Russian/Slavic folklore was lots of fun. Highly recommended – you won’t even mind (much) that Mignola has turned over the reins on the art to Duncan Fegredo (except for one epilogue that Mignola draws), as there are plenty of wondrous creatures and gorgeous winter vistas throughout the story.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers

Halloween Review: The Descent by Jeff Long

This is an action-adventure thriller with horror undertones; you just have to keep telling yourself that it’s a thriller, hope for the best, and suspend your disbelief. The book starts off really strongly, with three or four excellent chapters detailing weird and horrifying things happening to various people around the globe. That’s always a good start. If only the middle and end had fulfilled the early promise of the book. It’s relatively fast-paced, but extremely long, and by the end, the reader is more than ready for it to be over. And like many contemporary thrillers, at times Long has written this one like it’s all but ready to become a screenplay.

Spoilers follow — beware!

Brief plot summary: The world discovers that there is a vast network of deep underground caves and that a primitive, vicious race of near-humans has been inhabiting those spaces since the dawn of time, periodically venturing to the surface to steal slaves and loot. Not a bad premise, eh? It’s pretty darn good, actually, but it does jump the shark when Long throws in the fact that these underground dwellers (called “hadals”) are led by a seemingly immortal leader who is the historical inspiration for Satan. Yep. Satan. It works, barely, and after a fashion, but I’d really like to have seen that whole bit excised. Religious undertones and themes in thrillers are just fine by me, but they have to be done well, and this one triggers my suspension of disbelief just a bit much. The final two-thirds of the book is taken up with an evil corporation’s expedition to map the cave network, bringing along various scientists, soldiers, and a linguist nun (Long tries to introduce quasi-religious elements whenever possible, and they just don’t always work).

I’m always reluctant to criticize an author for what he didn’t do, but frankly, Long doesn’t go for at least one obvious plotline that he probably should have: the brief period of open warfare between the hadals and the world’s militaries. That all happens off-screen — with the slaughter of literally millions of humans and hadals — which is extremely annoying. That could have filled a significant portion of the book, and might have been more entertaining than what he did present. More military science fiction and less stereotypical corporate greed and Satan-hunting might have been just what the doctor ordered.

There is a sequel to Descent (entitled Deeper), and I’m really of mixed minds about whether to continue with what has become a series. If I do pick up the sequel, it’s probably not going to be right away or for full price. I give it 3 stars out of 5, and offer a weak recommendation for this title if you enjoy thrillers.

Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers