Last year I took a chance on a book I stumbled across in a thrift store. It was a title I’d never heard of before by an author I’d never of heard before. The jacket summary talked about ghosts and Halloween though so I figured, for a dollar-fifty, I would take the chance on it.
That book was called The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan, and it is easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read and the absolute best Halloween novel I’ve ever read.
The Night Country follows a group of young people, friends actually, whose lives change forever after a terrible car accident on Halloween night. The accident claims the lives of a few and splits the group into two very distinct categories; the living and the dead. True to seasonal tradition, the spirits of the ones who have passed come back a year later to check in on the friends they left behind. But circumstances are much more dire than they appear this Halloween, and it’s up to both the living and dead to stop another tragedy from happening.
The plot succeeds in echoing the simplicity of other ghost stories we grew up hearing, as if the same author of those short legends grew up with us and then updated the tales for our more mature sensibilities. There are no major otherworldy quirks to adjust to here, no supernatural uniqueness to the spirits setting them apart. It’s all about humans doing what humans do and ghosts doing what ghosts do, or at least as the Western World traditionally holds them to doing.
Instead of trying to force a new mythology upon the readers, O’Nan spends his time fleshing out the characters themselves and carefully capturing the emotion of each chapter. Several chapters had me feeling genuinely sad and concerned for the characters, which as most readers know, if no easy feat for an author to accomplish.
Another great thing about the novel is that, like the ghosts, it makes a whole character out of holiday tradition itself. The crunchy dead leaves. The chill in the air, from either wind or ghosts. The small town decorations. It was what we all picture and expect from Halloween here in America, giving the novel an aura of nostalgia for the reader to feed on. The landscape of The Night Country, though set in the real world, was truly October country and I loved stepping into it.
I wish I could go further into the plot, but to do so would spoil it. Mentioning anymore I think would allow you to eventually calculate character arcs and plot twists well before even reaching the halfway point of the novel. All I can do is ask you to trust me. Take a blind chance like I did and let the story surprise you. If you don’t love it… well then you’re probably just more of a Christmas person.
If The Night Country was perfection in tackling a realistic Halloween environment, wrought with emotion and human characters, then Dark Harvest is perfection when it comes to a Halloween fantasyland with macabre traditions and jack o’lantern creatures.
The story, by Norman Partridge, is a wild yarn about a small town with a dark Halloween tradition. Every year, a being called The October Boy rises from the fields and heads into town where the young men there wait for him. Instead of trick-or-treating though, this creature and those young men play an eerie game of cat-and-mouse, with bloody death often ending the chase for one side. This particular year however, one young man is determined to beat this Halloween monster in a desperate chance to escape his small town existence… but will the town and all it’s autumn secrets allow him to truly leave?
The novel is fast-paced, intriguing, and just plain fun. On the surface it’s a seasonally colorful tale any Halloween-horror lover will love, but there’s plenty to be had for those looking for deeper context. Themes of adult sins permeating the lives of children and of male rites of passage dominate and compel. A short companion story, which I’ve yet to read, can be found in a Halloween anthology by Partridge called Johnny Halloween.
So this October, please still read The Halloween Tree or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but don’t rob yourself of what may be two of the greatest Halloween novels of our generation. Between the two, you’ll figure out which one fits your literary tastes more, but if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll love them both and return for a re-read every year when when the leaves begin to fall and a chill hits the air.