BP Gregory's Top 5 Halloween Reads 2020
Welcome to the run up to Halloween, my jolly Spooks and Ghouls!
I have to confess that like a lot of you my reading hit a slow patch in 2020 (https://www.goodreads.com/user_challenges/19328468).
But fear not, the dark reading gods have not withheld the sinews and splintered bones of their generosity. I have quite the mixed bag of treats here to get you into the Halloween spirit.
Read on for the best stories to take you through October …
5. The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones
“The whole backyard is shaking and loud and fast and dangerous, the kind of sensory trauma where Lewis is pretty sure that, if there were a sprinkler rainbowing a wall of water back and forth, that iridescent sheet of color would collapse, turn to mist.
It’s the train that runs behind this neighborhood twice a day, what Peta calls the Thunderball Express. It’s why her and Lewis can swing rent on a place with a ceiling this high. It’s also why Harley can’t be getting out of the backyard anymore.
Lewis looks up at the coal and graffiti smearing past, sees tomorrow’s headline in his head: ONCE-LOCAL MAN CAN’T EVEN TOUCH HIS OWN DYING DOG.”
I found The Only Good Indians to be genuinely unlike any other story I’ve ever read. Four American Indian men are pursued by a grisly event from their past, that might not have been as they remember.
The novel is many layered, moving through moods of mournfulness, guilt, and of course flashes of skin-crawling horror that are nicely foreshadowed and not overused. In fact letting them stand alone and appalling is one of the story’s great strengths, giving the reader time to recover from one aftershock and time to dread the next one.
I’ve seen authors fall into the trap of showing events from the “monster”’s point of view and by humanising it, they lose the tension. Stephen Graham Jones instead plays with the concepts of humanising and othering, greatly emphasising the horror as the story builds to crescendo.
4. Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef, Cassandra Khaw
“Chinatown, Chee Cheong Kai, Petaling Street: all names for the rotted apple planted deep in Kuala Lumpur’s eye. It is fecund with odours both nauseating and tantilizing, a duality of butter cream crabs and dried urine, fermented bean curd and roasting chestnuts, sewage and sweat and all the other fine accoutrements you can expect to find in a bloated tourist trap. There are a hundred reasons to part with your money here: roasted duck carcass, pirated DVDs with strategically comical sleeves, cheongsams like wisps of flame, and if you look carefully enough, mouths painted with conspiratorial promise.”
Ok let’s switch tone for a bit, not every story can be doom and existential terror. Although given both the pantheon and lush descriptions, tackling this first novel in Cassandra Khaw’s Gods and Monsters series is definitely not for the squeamish.
Rupert Wong is an indentured chef cooking lavish cannibal feasts for a dynasty of ghouls. He comes home at night to his beloved girlfriend, a blood drinking ghost. Now to save his life and her soul he has to solve a murder.
Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef has shades of John Dies At The End (David Wong) and The Unnoticables (Robert Brockway) in its combination of wry humour, larger philosophical arcs and in your face gore but it is definitely blazes its own path. Halloween demands something this rollicking and fun to get into your costumes, candy, and cooking.
Also FYI I love the 2015 edition cover art.
3. Tide of Stone, Kaaron Warren
“It smelled like a guinea pig’s cage. They were lined up along the two walls, very little space between them, but enough walkway space that I wouldn’t trip over their outstretched legs. They had no beds, no pillows. They sat on the floor, resting their backs against the wall.
There was a buzz; the prisoners murmuring, or perhaps simply breathing.
They were dried up, like shrunken heads, tongues protruding and slightly black. Nostrils broader than they should be. Eyes dull, opaque. Arseholes? I hoped not to see those.”
Loving or hating it, the small town of Tempuston is centered around The Time-Ball Tower, where the worst criminals are secretly imprisoned and never allowed to die.
Craving the glory of those who have gone before her, Phillipa is readying herself to be the new Keeper of the tower. She thinks she’s ready. But will all the time in the world be enough to uncover its secrets?
Given the themes of confinement this was an unusual story to read while in COVID-19 lockdown (which in Melbourne, Australia has been going on a rather long time). The horror of Tide of Stone is of a philosophical nature, to be chewed over, the rights and wrongs of punishment, blame and mortification mentally debated.
Kaaron Warren has achieved something special with the structure. By allowing us to read the diary of past Keepers prior to following Phillipa into the tower, we feel that we ourselves are becoming Keepers and that we are privy to all their secrets. Of course nothing could be further from the truth.
The repetition also marks the passage of time, the unrelenting nature of it, preparing readers for the way truth refuses to be hidden away, continuously unfolds if you are just patient enough.
2. We Need To Do Something, Max Booth III
“Our phones won’t stop screaming, each slightly out of synch with the other, making the noises jarring and insane.
We form a line and pile into the bathroom—Mom first, hugging a rolled-up blanket to her chest; followed by Bobby with a stack of board games nearly matching his height; then me, still soaked from the storm outside, walking on autopilot while jabbing my thumbs against the weather alert on my phone; and behind me, whiskey fresh on his breath, my dad. The only thing he’s brought with him being his thermos. Nobody has to guess what’s inside it.”
Another confinement story to enjoy during COVID-19! This is a beautiful, taut dissection of a dysfunctional family as they find themselves trapped in their bathroom during a tornado.
Slightly supernatural and jarringly frightening in places – in fact one particular moment made me feel cold and sick and I had to stop reading for a bit. You’ll know when you get there.
We Need To Do Something is the perfect combination of wild concepts and a grounded, unflinching but also compassionate look at human fears and failure.
1. Everything Is Beautiful And Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here, Michael Wehunt
“And it was there in the back yard that the sun finally bled out of that Saturday, sinking into its pastels out toward the Smokies, treetops raking the last light from it. I walked across our quarter-acre. At the fence I brushed my fingers against the unstained cedar, still rough in some spots and wanting to give me splinters. I felt the compulsion of a commuter craning her neck to watch an accident out on the I-40, wanting in spite of myself to see where the blood had spilled.”
Fontaine Falls is a perfect little American town. At least that is what most of the residents think, and they never imagine anything beyond that.
In fact when a neighbour opens fire on a crowd of black demonstrators gathered in the park, there are those who will do anything to avoid thinking any further than they must.
Bea, teetering on the brink, does not want to know what the ghosts of this violence will tell her so very close to home. She will also find herself unable to look away.
Ok this is my number one. Everything Is Beautiful And Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here was mournful and scary in that gut-clenching existential way of 2020, and also made me cry.
Michael Wehunt has written the story of an ambiguous and chilling haunting, caught in the tension of trying to decide what to do. Is knowing worse than ignorance? For who?
If you can, you should definitely get your hands on the Nightscape Press 2019 Charitable Chapbook Edition with its eerie illustrations.