Halloween has to be the most spontaneous and unpredictable holiday. Last-minute costumes, parties sought and ditched for other parties; trusted trick-or-treat routes making sudden bends through unexplored neighborhoods. It's also an informal holiday: businesses, schools, parties, and random people get costumed whenever's convenient or cool. It's in the spirit of such spontaneity that I present a grab-bag of Halloween reviews: books, games, movies, and music, to enhance your Halloween mood!
The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski: This novella debuted Halloween of 2005, but just arrived stateside two weeks ago. Having not read Danielewski's cult hit House of Leaves; I was eager to prepare myself for his experimental writing style. T50YS is certainly atypical and stylized: sentences are broken up like poetry, pages are mixed with photos of artistic stitching. The narration is split five ways, each with color-coordinated quotation marks. Sounds complex, but reads smoothly: the quotation marks fade away, leaving you with a creepy, lovely fable about a seamstress, a story-teller, five orphans, and harrowing quest to obtain a disturbingly powerful weapon. Wicked little book, a great Halloween tale for grown-ups.
The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury: I keep reading Bradbury's books and thinking, “Where have you BEEN all my life?” First Fahrenheit 451, then especially The Illustrated Man, and now extra-especially with The Halloween Tree. Forty years old, and (excepting the occasional “Gosh!”) still feels as magical and mysterious as anything coming out this year. Simple enough premise: eight boys embark on a wild journey to save their friend, discovering Halloween's rich history along the way. Man oh man, the language! And the illustrations! I can't remember the last time an author swept me away so completely in less than 200 pages. It's insanely good.
The Ravenloft Novels by TSR: Dungeons & Dragons has a long-standing tradition of novel tie-ins, including the Horror Fantasy world of Ravenloft. The books themselves are mostly reimaginings of well-known stories (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.) but occasionally break into intriguing, original territory. Each is written by a different author, so style varies greatly, but the overall themes are fast-paced horror and eerie fantasy, which taste great together. My favorites are Carnival of Fear (a carnival freak show crime story) and I, Strahd (a vampire's epistolary novel) … really, though, they're all fun.
Zen Ghosts by Jon J. Muth: The greatest (and only?) Halloween picture book in watercolor. I admire Muth's illustrations, be they for kids or for adults, and his gorgeous, inviting picture books are particularly worthy of mention. Stillwater the panda returns from Zen Shorts and Zen Ties with Addy, Michael, and Karl for a post-trick-or-treating ghost story. A treat to see and to read, Zen Ghosts is a graceful treasure.
Costume Quest by Double Fine Productions: Changing gears from books to games, let's talk about Costume Quest, a Halloween night tradition of mine since 2010. You start by choosing from a set of twins: whichever twin you didn't pick is kidnapped by goblins. To rescue your sibling, you team up with neighborhood kids, collecting costumes along the way. When faced with goblin combat, these costumes transform you into giant versions of themselves! So the robot, unicorn, or Statue of Liberty costumes turn you into a colossal robot, a huge armored unicorn, or a torch-blasting, anthem-singing Lady Liberty. Which is awesome. Gameplay mixes adventure and turn-based combat à la Paper Mario, animation is lovingly cartoonish, and the humor is brighter than a moonlit night. Short, sweet, and freaking amazing.
Fantasia by Walt Disney: Switching to cinema, this one's a stretch: not much Halloween here. Dinosaurs? Naked cherubs? Hippos in tutus? Not much Halloween here. But after all the not-Halloween stuff, right at the end … you get the majestic, demonic, bewitching Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky, paired with a giant swirl of ghosts, goblins, hags, and beasts, summoned forth by a giant devil growing out of a mountaintop. Now that … that's Halloween. Disney's iconic animation applied to the mythological midnight hour; Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra knock it out of the park.
Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires by Scientist: Last, but not at all least, but perhaps a bit unexpected: a dub album! Not dubstep, which is a loud, overproduced genre of electronic dance music. I mean dub, which is a mellow, rhythmically-centered instrumental off-shoot of reggae. My favorite dub producer is Scientist, whose ...Vampires is intoxicating: thoroughly-mixed drums and bass, carefully-worked horns and effects, and snippets of Halloween-themed lyrics. With songs like “Cry Of The Werewolf,” “The Mummy's Shroud,” and “Your Teeth In My Neck,” you know you've got Halloween going on. Even if it's instrumental reggae.
There you have it! Ten different soulful, stylish ways to enjoy October to its very last. Now go forth and make your pumpkins proud!