Monday, October 19, 2015

#HalloweenRead: Young Goodman Brown

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, isn't someone I've ever associated with Halloween. But Hawthorne's story, Young Goodman Brown, is a darkly ambiguous, allegorical slice of dread that's a perfect compliment to the season if you enjoy mixing things up a bit and aren't one of those boring people who dismisses old literature as boring.
Young Goodman Brown illustrates one fateful night in the life of its titular character, in which Brown confronts the hypocrisy of his fellow townspeople and the inescapable pervasiveness of Evil. Hawthorne's tale isn't gruesome, isn't filled with monsters (is it?), and isn't, on its surface, something that'll keep you up at night. But lurking under the surface of the story is a vast darkness, waiting to swallow the reader. It's the darkness of doubt, the darkness that descends whenever we realize that other people are essentially unknowable, and that all of our assumptions about the motivations of our fellow man rest precariously on the very little we can truly know about their hearts.
Young Goodman Brown is available to read online FOR FREE. It'll take you all of 10 minutes. Go forth hence and attend to it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

#HalloweenRead: Locke & Key (Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, Jay Fotos, Robbie Robbins)

Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King, but I didn't know that when I started reading Locke & Key way back in 2008 based solely on my admiration for the book's artist, Gabriel Rodriguez. All I knew was that Hill's story - about a family attempting to recover from horrific tragedy by moving into their ancestral home, only to find themselves in the middle of an intricate, sinister, multigenerational struggle - was utterly captivating.

I've since read Hill's novels, and while I've enjoyed them all Locke & Key is far and away his finest hour as a storyteller thus far. Hill's carefully plotted, deeply felt scripts were brought to gorgeous, haunting life via the pencils and inks of the tremendously talented Gabriel Rodriguez, the superb coloring of Jay Fotos, and the solid lettering of Robbie Robbins. This team of gifted collaborators all brought their A-game with each and every issue, and the quality of this series never once lags.

Locke & Key isn't simply a great comic - it's great fiction, period. Its characters are multidimensional, relatable, compelling. Its structure is airtight and the story moves like lightning, while leaving plenty of room for quiet moments and lovely grace notes. Its mysteries are such that, on first reading, they unfold in delightfully shocking, unexpected ways and on second reading reveal themselves to have been carefully planned and thought through from the very beginning. Most impressively to me, the series grapples with weighty, heady topics without ever once feeling weighed down by them. Grief, loss, memory, identity, longing, emotion, regret, adulthood, childhood, responsibility, addiction...they're all examined and handled with exquisite care.

That last bit might make the story seem like something of a slog. Somehow it isn't. Somehow Hill, Rodriguez, Fotos and Robbins manage to include all of those things within a propulsive, page-turning read that's equal parts horrific and, yes, hilarious. You'll laugh a lot, and you'll shiver too - often within a page or two of each other. It's sprawling and scary, aching and autumnal, intelligent and imaginative, magical and melancholy. If Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker and LOST had a baby it wouldn't be Locke & Key, exactly, but it also wouldn't not be Locke & Key.

Locke & Key consists of one finite story that has been collected in six individual volumes, which you can and should find at your local library, your local bookshop, your local comics shop, on Amazon, and on Comixology. Seek it out. It's wonderful.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

#HalloweenRead: Out Of Skin (Emily Carroll)


Emily Carroll's OUT OF SKIN is both an unsettling short story and a unique reading experience, consisting of descending vertical comics panels that alternately bleed together and strike the eye in staccato bursts. Carroll's strong voice as a storyteller and her distinctive art style work together to create an unnerving tale set somewhere rural and nameless and haunted. Am I certain what's happened by the time the story ends? Not at all. Am I left seriously creeped out nonetheless? Oh yes. OUT OF SKIN is a perfectly spooky, bite-sized story for the season.
Read it FOR FREE right here. If you enjoy it you can explore Carroll's other online offerings, all of which are similarly mysterious, haunting, and magical.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

#HalloweenRead: IT (Stephen King)

I tried to read IT when I was 11 years old. I got as far as the first appearance of Pennywise the clown, leering up at poor Georgie Denbrough from the sewer, and promptly snapped the book shut - shoving it under an entire stack of paperbacks as though it were somehow radioactive. As if trying to make the other books act as lead shielding. Didn't work. I could still feel it/IT** there, malignant and present beneath The Chronicles of Prydain and The Stainless Steel Rat and God knows what else; that green claw on the cover curling out of the drain and into my brain.

(**IT is very hard to write about as an object without feeling self conscious every time you refer to "it" as an object/book, not "IT" as a title.)

I re-tackled King's horror epic pretty soon after I started high school, and this time the book wouldn't let me go. I fell in (disturbing, twisted) love. IT had everything I wanted from a horror novel at that age: the scariest motherf*cking clown in existence and a swarming menagerie of other terrifying monsters, all unified on a grand scale in a way that also drew on Lovecraftian cosmic horror and metaphysics, telling a story that spanned decades in the lives of its lovingly rendered characters.

I loved it enough so that, as a senior in college, when a friend asked me what Stephen King book he should read, I immediately named IT. I came back to my room after classes a few days later to find a balloon tied to my doorknob. "We all float down here" had been scrawled on the piece of paper that was taped to it.

I read IT again then, right along with him, and what stuck out to me and floored me wasn't the scariest clown in human history (though true), nor the near-Lovecraftian sense of age and scope and cosmic terror (though it's even more impressive to me, as an adult, that King managed to take his tale that far out without breaking it or rendering it impotently ludicrous). No, what really got me was the vicious, knowing vivisection of the town that IT is set in - Derry, Maine. King cuts Derry open like a surgeon to display its blackened, rotting innards. He knows the town down to its bones, as though he had lived his life there. That's because King wrote about a place he knew and knew well - Bangor, Maine (the real Bangor isn't a hub of Ultimate Evil, obviously). The story of IT is the story of Derry; a place that was born bad, soaked from its beginnings in otherworldly evil. There's a Dickensian sense of place to the book, creating a fully-realized and hyper-detailed world across generations. It's amazing.

So, an epic on two fronts: in the scope of its horror cosmology/timeline/characters, and in its intimate, sprawling chronicle of Derry. IT is rich in character, history, and terror, and suffused with an aching nostalgia for childhood that's heavily leavened by a realistic eye toward all the uncertainty, fear, humiliation, and chaos that childhood harbors. If IT isn't King's single best novel it's certainly in the top three.

...Now let's talk about The Scene.

You can't talk about IT without discussing that scene. If you've read it then you know the scene I'm talking about. It's infamous, and has only become moreso since the advent of the internet. Some people think that The Scene derails/ruins the book entirely. I don't agree. I don't think the scene in question is necessary. I think the scene is deeply weird. I think I'd much prefer a version where the scene is edited out. You lose nothing by excising it, I think.

But I'm not Stephen King. As deeply weird and as arguably unnecessary as the scene is, I do understand why King wanted it/wants it in there. Thematically, that is. And I don't think it ruins the book, though it may in some sense diminish it, depending on your reaction to it.

If you don't know what I'm talking about now you will, if you read IT.
My advice, if you choose to read the book and arrive at that scene? Look for the thematic reasons King put it there, and then move on. There's so much muchness to IT - so much that is genuinely terrifying, affecting, amusing, intelligent, sad, hopeful, awful, wonderful - that to get hung up on one (divisive, weird) scene at the expense of all IT offers is to lose out on one of King's very best books. In any event, if you decide to read IT, why not come on back here afterward and tell me what you thought?
Honorable King mention: 'Salem's Lot, suggested by @kylepinion

Kyle Pinion suggested 'Salem's Lot as a great Halloween read, and I can't disagree with him. It's a spooky book, perfect for this time of year, and I came close to selecting it or Pet Semetary as my King-penned suggestion in this series. Both are damn fine scary novels, but neither of them have stuck to my ribs, figuratively speaking, over multiple decades. They scared me, but they didn't terrify me, nor did they inspire in me the profound admiration for King as a writer that IT inspired (and inspires) in me. If you're looking to tackle something a little less enormous than IT this season 'Salem's Lot would do nicely.

Friday, October 9, 2015

#HalloweenRead: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (Alvin Schwartz)

This one's for all the parents, aunts, and uncles out there.
Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has had the honor of inhabiting the American Library Association's top ten list of most frequently challenged books over two separate, consecutive decades. There's a reason for that. Namely, it and its two sequels have scared the bejeezus out of generations of young children.
I think that's delightful.

The collective cultural push to swaddle our children in bubble wrap, while somewhat understandable on some levels (we love them, obviously), is also deeply damaging to the very children we're trying to protect. Children want, and need, to be scared. They want to challenge themselves and face their fears. You and I wanted the same thing at their age, and it's our responsibility to help them do that safely. I can't think of a better way to do so than by spending time together reading a spooky book that's appropriate for elementary school-age kids.

Scary Stories contains tales that will genuinely frighten your children, but not in any way that should concern you. These tales are firmly of the "ghost stories 'round the campfire" type. School teachers and librarians have safely and successfully read them aloud to young kids for over thirty years, and their continued popularity is a testament to their ability to give children the jolts they want and need without harming them.
Recent editions of Scary Stories have replaced Stephen Gammell's original and genuinely terrifying illustrations with the work of Brett Helquist. Gammell's drawings are what people mean when they talk about "nightmare fuel." Helquist's work is charming and creepy, and much "safer." Judge for yourself. I certainly know which version I would have preferred as a kid, given the choice:

If you think your kids can handle Gammell's illustrations (and as a third grader I had no problem handling them, even if they did make my skin crawl) I'd recommend getting a copy that features them, but I suspect you'll have to pay more on the secondary market for that privilege.

Deciding for yourself which version your child can and should handle is responsible parenting. Demanding that libraries remove these books altogether "for the children," something that's occurred regularly over two decades, is despicable demagoguery. Over three decades after they were initially published, the Scary Stories series continues to give children a safe means of scaring themselves silly. This Halloween season why not unplug all your lamps, light a few candles, and read them stories from this book?

You can pick up the Scary Stories series at your local library or local book shop, at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, etc. Many of the stories are also apparently online, free of charge. Buy the books, though.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

#HalloweenRead: A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i (Alaya Dawn Johnson)

Post-Twilight, post-The Strain, post- a thousand books and TV shows and movies, you'd think that vampire fiction as a subgenre would be bled dry (Thank you! Good night, folks! Tip your waiter!).

But then you read a story like Alaya Dawn Johnson's award-winning A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i, and you remember that vampires are eternally vibrant monsters in the hands of assured storytellers.

Johnson's short story takes familiar tropes and transplants them to a setting that renders them freshly intriguing in this tale of a conquered people. A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i is sharply focused and surefooted, Johnson's narrative voice imbuing the story with an ambiguous, fiercely melancholy resonance. This is a story about literal monsters, yes, but it's also a story about colonization and the parasitical aspects of tourism. That aspect never becomes stridently preachy or distracting - it's simply there, present and potent and sad. Johnson's protagonist, Key, is vividly drawn, her deeply conflicted inner life opened to us like halves of the cherimoya fruit she cherishes, both sweet and poisonous.

Why is a tropical vampire story on a list of suggested Halloween reads? Well, for one, it's just a damn good story. For another, places like Hawai'i celebrate fall and winter holidays too. They may not have fall foliage and chilly nights, but they still have a need for unsettling tales. Alaya Dawn Johnson's story is unsettling, and more.

 Read A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai'i FOR FREE on Alaya Dawn Johnson's site.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

#HalloweenRead: The Halloween Tree... Maybe? (Ray Bradbury)

A group of boys in an unnamed small town, intoxicated by the pleasures of Halloween night but ignorant of the holiday's history, encounter the mysterious and monstrous Mr. Moundshroud, who takes them on a millennia-spanning journey to help explain why we celebrate Halloween. That's the basic spine of The Halloween Tree, Ray Bradbury's adaptation of his screenplay for a planned but unconsummated collaboration with legendary animator Chuck Jones (and oh! how I wish that movie existed!). It's a boys' adventure story and a history of the holiday, spun with Bradbury's oft-imitated, never duplicated prose.

I read it for the first time last night, sitting outside on a park bench surrounded by fallen leaves, pages lit by a lone lamppost, the smell of autumn in the air - which is sort of a platonic ideal, location wise, for this particular author. The Halloween Tree is vintage Bradbury that's also an interesting tour of history to explain the reasons for the spooky season. Both @geekdame and @millerunc recommended it to me and I'm glad that they did. If you've got kids reading the book out loud to them should make for a crackerjack holiday experience. It's a book that's actually about Halloween, so it makes perfect sense to recommend it.

...But. Reading the book as an adult, knowing that it was an adaptation of Bradbury's own screenplay, there's a curiously jumbled quality to the story - a real sense that one is reading a hybrid screenplay/novel, lovingly assembled but still having the feel of something assembled. And so, if I'm completely honest...
If I had to pick just one Bradbury novel to read this month it'd be Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray Bradbury lived an October life in his books. Autumn isn't just a constant season in his books it's a state of existence, and I never feel that as keenly as I do reading Bradbury's achingly bittersweet tale of aging, mortality, boyhood, manhood, and a fast friendship tested by the darkest of forces. The book breathes fall and hums with wonder and menace. I can't imagine that there are many people out there who haven't read this particular tale, but if you're out there this would be the perfect month to finally check it out of your library or pick up a copy to keep.

So. Got kids old enough to appreciate Bradbury's potently purple prose? Read The Halloween Tree to them. They'll love it and you'll love reading it to them. But if you're looking for a book for yourself and you haven't gotten around to Bradbury's most haunted and haunting novel? In that case, read Something Wicked This Way Comes. Either way, Bradbury's a perfect, eerie, wistful companion each and every October.

You can pick up either book (both, even!) at your local library or local book shop, at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, etc.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

#HalloweenRead: House of Leaves (Mark Z Danielewski)

House of Leaves is: (1) a novel; (2) a cult object with the attendant acolytes, agnostics, and atheists that cult objects always inspire; (3) an experiment in form and narrative that divides audiences as though it were a cleaver; (4) a book within a book within a book that, for this reader, was a deeply unnerving, unforgettable read.
Put as simply (and reductively) as possible, the book concerns Johnny Truant, who discovers a hyper-detailed academic manuscript on something called The Navidson Record - an apparently non-existent documentary film about a family living in a non-existent and impossible house. Things quickly get, and stay, weird.

House of Leaves is a wholly unconventional horror story and love story that's concerned on multiple levels with narrative and meaning, and is explicitly constructed to simulate the sort of existential dread and fear of emptiness that it explores. Its baroque, labyrinthine pages echo and magnify the literal and figurative mazes within those pages, and basically if you're a certain sort of person the experience of reading it may really mess with you. 
House of Leaves is most assuredly not for everyone. It is dense, literally difficult to read in places, and its central gambit/gimmick is one that either works for you or doesn't work for you. Personally, I greatly admire that the book so clearly doesn't give a damn about aggravating or losing its audience.

If any of this intrigues you, and you're the type of person who seeks out unconventional reads and who can keep an open mind, I highly encourage you to give this one a shot. If, on the other hand, you're anything like this guy then you'll want to stay away (from Danielewski's book and from me).
You can pick up House of Leaves at your local book shop, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, etc.

Monday, October 5, 2015

#HalloweenRead: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Washington Irving)

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an American Halloween ur-myth, in the same way that 'Twas the Night Before Christmas is an American Christmas ur-myth. Both are stories that have lasted far beyond their initial publication, influencing and embodying American holiday seasons in certain indelible ways.

Irving’s Sleepy Hollow isn’t scary to the modern reader (unless you’re very young, or prone to distress over the notion of being hit by a pumpkin), but it is formative, foundational, a classic worthy of respect. It is rooted in the new soil of America, published less than 50 years after America achieved its Independence from Great Britain. Since its initial publication Sleepy Hollow has shown surprisingly robust endurance in American popular culture. It lasts – and its lasting power is tied inextricably to Halloween.

Irving’s writing style is archaic to the modern eye, but it's also very easy to read if you're willing to accept Irving's formal voice. There's dry wit there, and a terrific way of depicting people and events in short, sharp, evocative strokes. I have no idea whether the following is sincere, but it's wonderful:

"She was withal a little of a coquette, as might be perceived in her dress. She wore ornaments of pure yellow gold to set off her charms, and a provokingly short petticoat to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round."

“Oh, it’s high ribaldry at its best!
” To whence have you gone, rampant ankle fetishism?

Sleepy Hollow is a step back in time to a period in American history where forests teemed and loomed and haunted; where the memory of Hessian soldiers was a fresh memory; where old world superstitions still lurked in the shadowed vales of a thousand isolated hamlets. It won’t scare you, but it should enrich you, and it’ll likely inspire you to watch one of its terrific adaptations.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow endures, and continues to be told in other media, as American Myth. Something about Irving's tale resonates with us on a lasting level and has helped to define the season. A century from now it is very likely that Irving’s tale will continue to be told on chilly October nights. That’s reason enough to read it this Halloween – which you can do, for free, right here