Halloween-based fiction becomes formulaic if it’s too loyal to certain mythic and cultural touchstones.
Despite the sinister atmosphere the holiday inherently provides, Halloween themes can often shackle horror fiction to burdensome tropes. Though it’s often framed as an uncanny season where anything can happen, Halloween-based fiction becomes formulaic if it’s too loyal to certain mythic and cultural touchstones. The short-fiction anthology Haunted Nights, despite a diversity of angles taken toward its All Hallows’ Eve subject matter, ultimately succumbs to this pitfall.
Produced by the Horror Writers Association and edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton, the former a respected genre editor and the latter an expert on Halloween, Haunted Nights turns in a valiant effort to run the gamut of inventive approaches to the macabre holiday in this 16-piece collection. Readers are treated to stories set in the distant past to the present day, and one piece even envisions Halloween traditions recreated on a future moon colony long after the destruction of Earth. Though the stories vary widely in scope, they all hinge on using Halloween as a device to heighten horror, but in doing so they’re prone to a cartoonish element that cheapens the horror to chintzy, haunted-house-esque gimmickry.
This drawback is most evident in the collection’s opening story, “With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfbane Seeds.” Set in a haunted mansion on the former estate of the long-dead town founder, the story features a ghost-child who walks through walls and wants to play with teenage vandals who break into the abandoned home that nevertheless seems to maintain itself in pristine condition. The heavy-handed piece offers nothing new to ghost story subgenre, and the melodramatic asides by its teenage narrator about whether her friends really care about her are juvenile and misguided. A subtler and far better use of the Halloween theme occurs in “A Flicker of Light on Devil’s Night,” the story of a single mother of two difficult children beginning to emotionally unravel amid the backdrop of autumnal mischief and mayhem.
But overall, subtlety is not Haunted Nights’ strong suit. Even in the slow-burn of “A Small Taste of the Old Country”—where an Austrian expat entices two former Nazis hiding out in Argentina to attend a giant feast in honor of Seelenwoche—or All Soul’s Week, an Austrian Halloween parallel—the inevitably malevolent climax is telegraphed throughout. “Witch Hazel,” a genuinely compelling 19th-century ghost story with a biological bent, goes over-the-top by incorporating worms wriggling under the flesh of those with an unholy affliction, and “Dirtmouth” reanimates an untimely deceased mother as a shambling, decaying ghoul that revisits her husband like something out of any number Stephen King stories without adding anything new to the mix.
Many of these pieces end up featuring lengthy dialogue of characters telling stories of their own, a device that grows tiresome. “Wick’s End” involves two disguised, evil entities swapping tall tales that, naturally, mirror the sinister truth, while “Lost in the Dark” goes so far as to describe the events of a fictional horror film by purportedly cutting and pasting an IMDb entry. But no matter the angles they take, the stories in Haunted Nights suffer from giving the Halloween-based conceit priority over simply telling stories that are genuinely scary. When a seven-foot-tall undead thing emerges in a suburban backyard in “We’re Never Inviting Amber Again,” it’s partially adorned in a discarded werewolf costume, which makes for a fitting analogy to Haunted Nights’s approach to horror: one delivered with the all the elegance of a rubber mask.