While you’re working your way through the list of great Halloween-appropriate movies and TV shows that we recommended for you earlier, you might want to think about picking up a book. Now, if you’re like most Americans you’re probably thinking, “Why would I pick up a book? Is there a spider around? OH MY GOD THERE’S A SPIDER IN MY HOUSE AND I CAN’T EVEN SEE IT!!! BURN IT!! BURN IT ALL!!” Calm down. There’s no spider. Well, there might be. There probably is. Spiders are everywhere. But, after you burn down your house to kill those spiders, you’re probably going to need something to read while waiting for your arson trial to start. Luckily, here are some great books to pick up this Halloween season!
It is very difficult to pick just one Stephen King book to read for Halloween. The man’s entire oeuvre is Halloween-friendly (well, except for when he goes off on weird baseball project tangents). His short story collections contain some of my favorite work of his and you can get through several great stories without tying yourself down to one of his door-stoppers like It or The Stand. Of his various collections I would strongly recommend Skeleton Crew. This is one that I grew up pulling down off of my Dad’s bookshelf and reading a story or two at a time. There are several really good stories in here including: ‘Here There Be Tygers’, ‘Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut’, ‘The Monkey’, ‘The Raft’, and ‘Gramma’. And check out Creepshow 2, The New Twilight Zone, and The Mist for film adaptations of several of Skeleton Crew’s stories.
Despite that long-winded intro, the book I’d actually recommend as the best Stephen King Halloween read is ‘Salem’s Lot. This is one of the best vampire novels ever written, combining King’s skill at small-town life (and strife) with some standout horror elements. The modeling on Bram Stoker’s Dracula is clear and intentional, but the uber-Vampire Barlow in ‘Salem’s Lot comes across as much more dangerous than Stoker’s version. It also has one of the best haunted house elements of any horror novel I’ve ever read (I would argue that it is much better than the frequently-cited Hell House by Matheson).
This is a vampire story for readers who still like a little unexplained magic in their vampires (At one point a lesser vampire is blasted by a shotgun, but instead of the now-commonplace depiction of super-fast healing from damage, the shotgun pellets instead pass right through the vampire without ever touching it. This gives it a more supernatural feel, and is all the more horrific for it, than the vampires in movies like Blade or Underworld– vampires bleed out in both!) King also holds onto the traditional aspects of vampire lore- the garlic, the stakes, the crosses, and roses- but makes them feel fresh and uses them to reinforce the dangerous nature of Barlow (this isn’t a vampire lord who sits around waiting to be killed, he’s taking active precautions to stay ahead of the would-be vampire hunters).
This remains one of my favorite Stephen King stories and one that I happily re-read around Halloween time. Its fast-paced, well-plotted, and more tightly written than King’s later endeavors. There are also a couple adaptations of ‘Salem’s Lot. I’ve watched the 2004 TV-Movie version starring Rob Lowe and it is… decent. Worth checking out after you read the book.
Locke and Key
That first suggestion a bit too wordy for you and lacking in enough teenage angst and colorful pictures? Well fine, then maybe what would be more up your alley is Locke and Key by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King) and drawn by Gabriel Rodriguez. What? Drawn by? Oh, right: Locke and Key is a comic book series. See? I promised there would be pictures.
The premise of Locke and Key takes a family in which the father has just been murdered and moves them to Lovecraft, MA where they basically inherit an old mansion filled with secrets. The first volume “Welcome to Lovecraft” just begins to reveal these secrets- keys that open magic doors and ghosts living in wells- while introducing us to the siblings (and primary characters) Bode (6), Kinsey (15), and Tyler (18) Locke.
The first volume shows that Joe Hill has learned a lot from his father; the principle villain is a normal human capable of inhuman acts of savagery and determination. The family is haunted, at first, not by the ghosts of Keyhouse (the mansion they live in) or the demonic extra-dimensional monsters that await, but by the murderer who killed their father and who is coming to finish what he started. The monsters and supernatural parts are great- and become more important in later chapters- but the homicidal Sam Lesser is a chilling adversary and, in a fashion that is again akin to King, sympathetic at times.
One thing about Locke and Key that needs to be stated: It is dense with its own mythology and backstory and it is not immediately forthcoming with important answers and explanations. Each volume tells a story but the full narrative requires you to wait, to be patient, and to piece it together as new information about old events is revealed. Like the protagonists, the reader is being thrust into a story not at its beginning but closer to its end. But that works well. We learn along with the kids, and what they learn is that parents were, at one time, kids too and that the choices they make as kids can impact the future in surprising ways.
Also, the art is top-notch and consistent. My first thoughts was that it was a little colorful and slightly cartoony for such a dark and moody book, but it really, really works. And maintaining one artist for the entire run has a huge impact. Characters always look like they should and Rodriguez proves his ability at designing some terrific environments and at conveying the emotional impact and growth these children go through.
Oh, and if reading a comic book is too much for you, you can download an audio drama version of it FOR FREE! I’ve been listening to it and it does a really, really good job. But it definitely helps to have read the comics first (or maybe during).
Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Stick with me on this because you’re probably thinking the wrong thing. Unless you’re already on board because you’re exactly the kind of cool nerd that already knows about the relaunch of Sabrina by Afterlife with Archie author Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is not the cheerful, fun, colorful adventures of a teenager living with a couple of friendly aunts and a cat. Except it is that. But it is also moody, horrifying, and dark. The atmosphere is much closer to Rosemary’s Baby than to the ABC TGIF series or the old Archie comics. This is also, by the way, another comic book series.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa had already transformed Archie and the Riverdale gang into a zombie-survival series to fantastic results before tackling Sabrina in Afterlife with Archie. That was (is) a fun book and a great counterpart to The Walking Dead and in that series Sabrina causes the zombie apocalypse before being forced into marriage to eldritch horror and TMS Editor-in-Chief Cthulhu.
With Chilling Adventures, Aguirre-Sacasa tells the story of a different Sabrina Spellman. Set in the 60s, the series does give us all the tropes of the original comics and the familiar show. Sabrina is a witch, the daughter of a warlock and a mortal human woman. She lives with her witch aunts and has a talking cat as a mentor/companion. But here the aunts are cannibals, her mother suffered horrible consequences for trying to get baby Sabrina away, and there is a reincarnated Madam Satan out to get revenge on the all the Spellmans. This shit is dark and moody and macabre. It is one of the best witch stories that I can recall- much better than American Horror Story: Coven.
Again, as with any comic book, the art is equally as important as the writing and artist Robert Hack knocks it out of the park. The palate is grim and moody, almost drained of color but not of blood or horror. This is a work where the chill and spine-tingles come not from shocking gore but from a very well-established mood of creeping terror and gloom.
A Ray Bradbury Two-fer: Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Halloween Tree
Two books?!? You want me to read TWO WHOLE BOOKS?! Calm down straw-man caricature of a lazy American, its not as bad as it sounds. Part of that is because I’m once again going to recommend that you listen to an audio drama instead of reading one of the books, so your workload just dropped by half.
Ray Bradbury is not an author that I got into at a young age. In fact I didn’t read any of his work before I was 30. That was when I ready Something Wicked This Way Comes. I read it in winter and regretted not reading it closer to Halloween. It captures the feel of late summer/early autumn so perfectly and with such American gothic atmosphere. This is a story that is not explicitly Halloween, but takes place in a perfect Halloween town. A carnival is coming to a small midwestern town and the two child leads are enthralled by it. As the story progresses we get to meet Mr. Dark and, in what was to me reminiscent of King’s Needful Things, we see people get their fondest wish- at a cost far more than they can possibly bear. I understand that SWTWC predates NT but not in my reading order so I’m sure King was influenced by Bradbury and not the other way around. The desire of a child to grow up into adulthood and the desire of an adult man to become young again are perfectly counterbalanced and resonate powerfully on both ends. You understand the allure of evil in this book and it encompasses you with a mood of nostalgia, longing, and growing horror.
I was worried that The Halloween Tree might be a bit too on-the-nose, but you know what? It is fantastic. Or at least the audio dramatization by the Colonial Radio Players fantastic. I assume the book is also a great read and hope to get it read this Halloween season. The story takes place on Halloween and features a cast of trick-or-treating children who visit an old, creepy house and get into far more than they expected. The narrative is fun and playful but also creepy (something Bradbury seems to excel at) but it is clearly designed to take the reader/listener through a history of Halloween traditions. The costumes of the children become important factors in moving the narrative from one ancient locale to another and in explaining the roots of Halloween. This would make a great book for kids that are still of trick-or-treating age and I plan to, at least, re-listen to the audio drama with the lights turned down and (hopefully) a nice thunderstorm rolling through the night.
Well, those are the books (comic and otherwise) that I recommend you check out this or any Halloween season. They take a larger investment than watching Hellraiser or a Treehouse of Horror marathon but they can be just as much fun. And the audio dramas provide a nice balance between the two, especially if you want to share the experience with someone.