The Mammoth Book of Halloween Stories
Edited by Stephen Jones
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
From the UK’s Mr. Horror, Stephen Jones, winner of shed loads of awards for his editing and contribution to the field of horror, comes another of his “mammoth” horror anthologies. He’s given us Mammoth collections in the past featuring the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, vampires and zombies. And he has edited the very essential “Best New Horror” for almost 30 years, sharing early editorial duties with Ramsey Campbell.
What we get here is over 500 pages featuring 26 stories and one poem about all things Halloween, from some of the established masters of the horror tale to some up-and-coming horror writers. Not all the stories are new. The very first one “October in the Chair” by Neil Gaiman (and dedicated to Ray Bradbury, for obvious reasons when you read it) first appeared in 2002 but it’s the perfect way to start this book. Just as Jane Yolen’s poem “Halloween Treats” is the perfect way to end it.
Other reprinted stories include those by vampire queen, Nancy Kilpatrick, who is down Mexico way for some Day of the Dead shenanigans; Richard Christian Mathieson delivers a very short, but nasty tale in his story “Bleed”. Joe R Lansdale’s “The Folding Man” is a breathless, high octane joy and a warning to those thinking of mooning a passing car full of nuns – not a good idea. “Not Our Brother” by Robert Silverberg is the oldest story in the collection, dating back to an appearance in the late-lamented “The Twilight Zone” magazine from 1982. It is a masterful tale from a master, featuring masks. Given this is a Halloween collection, you can expect more stories about masks elsewhere, particularly from horror maestro, Ramsay Campbell in his tale “Her face” as a boy gets a job in a shop where masks are on display and the woman who owns the shop is acting rather oddly. “Lantern Jack” by Christopher Fowler is also a treat among the reprinted stories recounting the history of a London pub over the centuries.
As for the new tales, the trick and treat here is to do something new and to avoid merely writing a horror story with some Halloween padding added in, or added on, something which I think Australian writer Robert Hood is guilty of in his story “A Man Totally Alone”. It’s a good story and a good idea but I felt the Halloween references were simple add-ons. Likewise I felt the same way about “The Nature of the Beast” by Sharon Gosling which has a nod towards Halloween traditions, but to be honest both Hood and Gosling’s stories are so good they could have appeared anywhere. Times change and in the very first of the new stories “Reflections in Black” by Steve Rasnic Tem, our narrator, uses social media to track down a lost love with dire consequences. The use of new technology also features in “The Ultimate Halloween Party App” by Lisa Morton where a couple go on a first date to a Halloween party in a future where terrorism is rife, but the terrorists don’t just use bullets and bombs. Other memorable stories which are a combination of chilling or interesting because of their fresh take on Halloween, and these include “Queen of the Hunt” by Adrian Cole, which is full of nice twists, and I could easily see this being made into a short film, or as part of one of those old-fashioned anthology horror films like “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors”.
For me, three stories stood out in this anthology. The first was “The Phenakisticope of Decay” by James Ebersole, as group of trick or treaters venture to a house too far, where the ill-prepared tenant has no sweets to give out, but something very different and a whole lot darker which dogs the children down through the years. Robert Shearman always delivers the goods and he’s certainly pushed the bloody envelope into new directions with his very strange tale called “The Pumpkin Kids” which might be about religious cults, child abuse, or….well, you decide, once you can get it out of your head. Finally, for me, “The Milennial’s Guide to Death” by Scott Bradfield was an absolute joy as we follow Death while he struggles to make enough money in the employ of Mother Nature. In fact, he has to juggle other jobs, a girl friend and collecting ungrateful souls who don’t want to go with him in his car to the place where he takes them – the place where the screaming starts. It’s a wise, funny, creepy take on the gig economy with supernatural overtones, and like nothing you’ve ever read before. Of course you might not agree, that’s the beauty of reading an anthology as varied as this, but if I can suggest something, read the Bradfield story last, you won’t be disappointed, I hope!