Books: Literally Dead: Tales of Halloween Hauntings

It’s only a week until Halloween, and like many of you guys (I assume), I’ve been preparing myself for the best day of the year by watching creepy, autumn-tinged movies and reading creepy, autumn-tinged books (which is really no different to what I’m doing the rest of the year, but I digress). So imagine my delight when I came across this brand new anthology, just published in September of 2022, called Literally Dead: Tales of Halloween Hauntings, and imagine my even greater excitement when I saw that I could read it for free with my Kindle Unlimited subscription.

I think what drew me to this one in particular, other than it being Halloween-themed, new, and free, was that amazing cover art, which captured so much of the magic of the holiday for me. So it was with great interest that I read the introduction of the book, penned by the cover artist herself, Lynne Hansen. Turns out that she did the artwork for a Halloween charity event back in 2021, raising money for the Little Victories animal rescue. When writer and editor Gaby Triana saw the artwork, she liked it so much that she decided to base an entire anthology around its particular, somewhat nostalgic aesthetic, essentially using the piece as a brief for the contributing authors. And I have to say, most of the authors came through aces; if you’re looking for something to put you in that spellbinding, wistful Halloween mood that you remember from childhood, most of the stories featured here will absolutely do the trick.

That said, though, there is a nice diversity of themes and styles among the 19 stories, so there really is something for everyone. I found all the stories excellent, and I enjoyed reading all of them, even though a few weren’t suited to my particular taste. Most of the tales are short and sweet, and run the gamut from cheeky and hilarious to pensive and melancholy; there’s even a good variety of settings, with tales taking place in more “obvious” locations like Salem and New Orleans, but also one in Wales, one in China, one in Ukraine, and one in the hoods of Chicago. I especially liked that most of the stories were focused less on gore (although there is a bit) and more on atmosphere, leaning hard into the swirling dead leaves, chilly winds, and darker nights of fall; in other words, this collection is heavy on the spooky and relatively light on the gruesome.

The first story, “The Curiosity at the Back of the Fridge” by Catherine Cavendish, is a fitting way to start off the anthology; it’s a brief, somewhat folkloric tale about a poverty-stricken, bullied young boy named Brian who befriends an old man named Bobby Clem, who lives in a ramshackle old house just outside his village. People whisper things about Bobby Clem, but Brian finds him kind and generous, particularly on Halloween, when he lays out a massive feast that is somehow provided by a being he calls “The Curiosity,” who lives in his refrigerator.

This is followed up by “A Bookstore Made of Skulls—Salem, Mass” by Maureen Mancini Amaturo, an atmospheric vignette in the first person about an unnamed narrator ducking into a weird bookstore; as someone who loves bookstores in general, this one really vibed with me, even though it’s only a few pages long.

The third story, “Postcards from Evelyn” by Scott Cole, actually reminded me of one of my own stories, “Neither Rain, Nor Sleet…” In it, a man named Andrew starts receiving postcards from someone named Evelyn inviting him to her Hallowe’en party, but the postcards are all postmarked 1910, and the sentiment on the cards starts to get more and more cranky as Halloween approaches and he doesn’t reply to them.

One of my favorites in the anthology was “The Crawlers in the Corn” by David Surface, a spooky monster tale about two 14-year-old boys who have been best friends for a long time. One of them, Danny, is still all about Halloween, but the other one, Carl, is pretending to be too old for that shit, drinking beer he stole from his dad and listening to terrible jazz like he’s some kind of sophisticate. It comes to light, though, that Carl is just scared of the creatures known as the Crawlers in the Corn, which Danny apparently summoned with his imagination, since the two boys were always making up scary stories about the cornfield across from Carl’s house when they were kids. This one captured the childhood Halloween feels really effectively.

The next three stories tended more toward sorrowful, as all examined grief in some way. “When They Fall” by Steve Rasnic Tem is a tragic story about a man named Ralph, who now lives alone in a creepy old house that was once a showplace that he shared with his wife and two children. It’s implied that the place is haunted, and over the course of the story, you discover what happened to Ralph’s family. It’s a very atmospheric piece, just oozing chilly autumn vibes and sadness. “Always October” by Jeremy Megargee, by the same token, is about a “ghost hunter,” who it seems is going around on Halloween when the veil is the thinnest, collecting ghosts and drawing them into himself, though the real story is a bit different than it seems. And then there’s “How to Unmake a Ghost” by Sara Tantlinger, another heartbreaking story, written in the second person, about a ghost who has been summoned by her girlfriend. It’s essentially a dead woman begging the woman she loves to let her go and live her life, rather than wallowing in her grief.

Then we get into another one of my favorites, a hilarious tale called “A Halloween Visit” by Dana Hammer, about a vain, elderly woman named Gabriella who used to be a famous jazz singer. She gets a late trick or treater who turns out to be an actual Grim Reaper, who insists on being called Emma. The dialogue between the old woman and the Reaper was sparkling and fun; this one was just a good time all around.

“Bootsy’s House” by Dennis K. Crosby is about two guys in Chicago who go into a notorious haunted house on Halloween night to retrieve $600,000 from a previous heist in which the perp holed up in the house and went crazy. I loved the way the imagery was described in this one, and it reminded me a bit of The People Under the Stairs, but supernatural.

Set in Wales, “Soul Cakes” by Catherine McCarthy is another sort of mournful story, most of which revolves around a young woman named Bethan making soul cakes with her grandmother, but we discover at the end that things aren’t as they seem.

Another funny (and comically disgusting) story was “Ghosts of Candies Past” by Jeff Strand, which had a great setup: it’s told from the point of view of a dad whose kids come back from trick-or-treating, but all the candy they got is old-timey candy; like, candy they don’t make anymore, or vintage versions of candy that’s still around. I won’t spoil what happens, but it’s really fun and also pretty gross.

Told from the perspective of a ghost named Katie, “Halloween at the Babylon” by Lisa Morton is about a performer who died in an accident 100 years before and has haunted the theater ever since. There’s also another, horrible something haunting the place, and Katie attempts to communicate with a group of ghost hunters who come in to investigate.

A much more topical take, though light on the Halloween vibes, is “Ghosts of Enerhodar” by Henry Herz. It’s set during the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, and describes a Russian attack that is thwarted by some folkloric monsters. This one wasn’t really my cup of tea, being very heavy on descriptions of military hardware and battle jargon, but it was exceptionally well written and researched.

The next story, “The Ghost Lake Mermaid” by Alethea Kontis, was another one of the best ones in the collection, in my opinion. It’s about a small town lake harboring at least two ghosts and many urban legends. The town is run by a shitty family of bullies and criminals called the Buckles who have covered up numerous crimes, but when the new ghost of a murdered woman arrives, she attempts to get justice for her own death and help the “mermaid” of the title.

Set in New Orleans, “Pink Lace and Death Gods” by Eva Roslin came across as slightly disjointed for me, though I liked it overall. It’s about a woman who buys a fabulous dress from a costume shop, but then switches bodies with a woman named Eloise, who made a deal with Baron Samedi a couple centuries back.

Another one that has pretty much nothing to do with Halloween but was pretty cool nonetheless was “The Ghost Cricket” by Lee Murray. It’s basically a Chinese folk tale about a dishonored prince and his concubine mother who are cast out of the palace and left with nothing but the dead patriarch’s lucky cricket, which keeps the prince awake until he takes some drastic measures.

“No One Sings in the City of the Dead” by Tim Waggoner, like some of the others in the collection, centered around grief and the difficulty in letting loved ones go. It’s about a woman whose husband dies of liver failure, and she takes some extreme measures to bring him back from the dead. Now that I think about it, there were a lot of sad stories in this anthology, but I actually loved that and found it much more in line with a Halloween mood than something more gory or monster-based; to me, Halloween is all about the start of the approach of winter, thoughts of death, and spooky ghost stories, so most of these tales fit right in, which I guess was why I dug this collection so much.

Anyway, the last two stories were also quite somber, and also among the best in the book, at least in my view. “A Scavenger Hunt When the Veil is Thin” by Gwendolyn Kiste was about a young woman who is drawn back to her small, somewhat close-minded hometown to complete the traditional Halloween scavenger hunt at the local haunted house, but she discovers that the reasons for the townspeople keeping the tradition alive were a lot different than she thought.

And last but certainly not least, “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead Across Your Dreams in Pale Battalions Go” by Jonathan Maberry was probably my favorite in the whole anthology; it was also the longest, though still relatively brief. It was a bit Stephen King-like, in the sense that it explored the aftermath of the Vietnam war, and in particular the ripple effects it had on people when they came back home. It was about a guy named Joey, who’s reminiscing about his older brother Alex volunteering for the Air Force in 1965, talking all his friends into signing up too, then describing the devastation in their community after most of them got killed in Vietnam. Most of the story is set in the present day, when Joey is an old man, and his older brother Alex shows up at his house in LA, asking forgiveness. It’s a bittersweet story, but also quite affecting, with a gut punch of an ending.

If you’re gearing up for Halloween and want a book full of eerie fall goodness to get you in the proper headspace, most of the morsels here will be welcome additions to your metaphorical treat bag. Some of the stories are more Halloween-forward than others, but if your tastes run more toward the spooky/sorrowful/ghostly/funny end of the spectrum rather than the bloody slasher end, then there’s absolutely going to be something here that gets your chains rattling and your cauldron bubbling. This will definitely be a book that will be going into my yearly Halloween rotation.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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