As I mentioned in my last book review about Literally Dead, I’m a sucker for a good Halloween horror anthology, whether it’s in book or film form. The one I’m talking about today, This Is Halloween by James A. Moore, is a bit different, in that it’s ten (mostly) Halloween-themed tales by a single author, several of which are interconnected. It’s also slightly older than I realized, having first been published in 2016. I read that some of the stories included here link in with Moore’s novels, but I’m not entirely sure about that, as I think this is the first work of his that I’ve read. This seems to be another case of an author who’s been around for ages (he’s been writing novels and RPG manuals since the mid-1990s) that I’m somehow only discovering now. Oh well, better late than never, I guess.
While a few of the ten stories were not directly Halloween-related, all had a similar autumnal vibe to them, and definitely evoked that specifically frosty, nostalgic, New England feel that always puts me right in the holiday spirit (even though I live in Florida and don’t get to ever experience a chilly Halloween firsthand, unfortunately). Some of the tales tapped into a larger mythology about a place called Beldam Woods and an ancient witch and her three sons, and several of them had a similar setup of a group of kids trick-or-treating and being chased and/or attacked by something supernatural. Because of that, a couple of the stories came across as slightly samey, but I didn’t really mind all that much; I just read the whole book as a kind of collection of creepy narratives about different people that were taking place all around the same town at the same time.
The first story, “The Dry Season,” is one of these trick-or-treating stories, where a pair of women named Linda and Nancy are taking their kids and some other children from the neighborhood out on the rounds. They feel as though they’re being followed and watched, and are intensely creeped out by the fact that a house which has been empty for many years—after a man named Martin Lundgren supposedly killed some children there—now appears to be occupied. As the story goes on, you discover that maybe the town rumors about what really happened regarding the murders weren’t what everyone thought.
The second story was one of the best in the collection, in my opinion; it’s called “Harvest Moon,” and it involves a widower who moves from Los Angeles to a quaint little New England town called Summitville after he retires. He loves the place at first: he finds romance with a local woman named Helen, and befriends his grumpy but good-hearted elderly neighbor Ned. As Halloween approaches, though, the narrator begins to become unsettled by just how into Halloween everyone seems to be, and in particular their almost obsessive tradition of building really disturbing scarecrows and positioning all of them in the town square. This one has a real old-school pagan ambience to it, which I really dug.
“Hathburn Avenue,” the third tale, was very similar to the first story, in that it also revolved around a group of kids trick or treating and coming across a house that wasn’t right. This one is told from the point of view of one of the kids, though, who’s talking about how one of his friends, named Chuck, recently died in a house fire that also claimed the rest of his family. As the narrator and his cohorts are trooping around the neighborhood, they come across a house that looks unsettlingly like the one that burned down not too long ago. This was a good, evocative story as well, though as I said it was very similar to the first story, so much so that while I was writing this review, I actually got them confused for a minute.
The fourth story, “Bone Harvest,” was one that tied in with the larger lore about Beldam Woods, and though it wasn’t really Halloween-centric, it was still a pretty cool concept. It dealt with a couple of botanical enthusiasts, Reggie and Natalie, who vacation in the supposedly haunted woods because the area is home to a number of very rare plants that are found nowhere else in the world, most of which are deadly poisonous. At some point, Natalie is attacked, and then the supernatural comes into play, as this tale delves into the mythos about the ancient witch, Alvina Bathory, and her three sons. The son featured in this particular story is named Robert, better known as Old Bones. I liked the imagery and gore in this one, though I would have preferred more of a Halloween focus.
“Harvest Gods Revisited” was also pretty great, and was another of the interconnected stories, though was more Halloween-forward. Told from the perspective of a Halloween-loving little boy named Ray, whose father passed away some time previously and who is now dispirited by the fun-averse and generally shitty new boyfriend his mom has taken up with, the story is basically just Ray trying to take a shortcut to get home quicker so he can go out trick or treating, getting lost, and running into another one of the witch’s sons, Jack, with whom he makes a bargain having to do with his less-than-ideal living situation. This was another one of my favorites in the collection; it was simple, short, and sweet.
“Patchwork,” about the third of the witch’s sons, named Patrick, was I think my least favorite; it might have been the longest (although still not all that long), and it was very complex, jumping back and forth between several different characters and having a bunch of things going on, in spite of its relative brevity. It was basically about Patrick pretending to be a human and trying to please his mother through various sacrifices, and it involved Patrick having a job delivering milk for a dairy along with another guy named Denny who was kind of a pedophile. Also there was a parallel plot about a group of schoolgirls planning to bully a new girl named Erika, by taking her into the cursed woods and making her think they were forcing her to eat one of the poisonous mushrooms. In addition, there was some other stuff about a woman named Lacey whose baby had died, and she had a husband who beat her and possibly molested their daughters, but I can’t remember how that tied into the main plot. This was a good story too, I just felt like it was all over the place, and way too convoluted for as relatively short as it was; all the plot tendrils it had going on would have been better in novel form, I think, where everything could have been fleshed out more.
The next tale, “Night Eyes,” was written with Charles R. Rutledge, and was another one concerning a group of kids (these ones hailing from Georgia in 1973) out and about on Halloween night. While trying to avoid a family of bullies that one of them had pissed off earlier, they decide to go trick or treat at the old Gramling Place, supposedly the home of a creepy old man. This one was also good and Halloweeny, but again, kind of similar to the previous two I mentioned.
“Blood Tide,” another one with not much to do with Halloween, told the story of a supernatural being of some kind named Jason Soulis, who buys a property from a character named Albert Miles, who was featured in a couple of the earlier stories. Soulis wants a girl for some implied purpose, and then we start to follow said girl, a sex worker named Maggie, as she’s stalked by a couple of potential robbers and rapists. Another good story, though I admit it felt like it was a fragment of some larger narrative, and I didn’t really get the connection between the Soulis character and what was happening with Maggie.
“Shades of Grey,” the penultimate story, was another of my favorite ones, even though (again) it wasn’t particularly Halloweeny. It was told from the POV of a private investigator named Neil, who overhears someone telling someone else that “something” is following them. Thereafter, the person who was being followed turns up dead, and Neil gets intrigued enough to begin conducting his own investigation into whatever it is that’s following—and possibly murdering—these people, and whether it’s human or not. This one had a really compelling noir feel to it, which made it very appealing to me.
The last story, “The Walker Place,” was the fourth story in the collection that centered on a group of kids on Halloween; this time out, they end up going to a notorious house in town where a whole family was brutally murdered, and perhaps unwisely using a Ouija board to contact some spirits. Not the most original tale, but still creepy and entertaining.
Although the stories here not all explicitly Halloween-based, there was enough of that vibe to make this a perfect read for the spooky season. Some of the stories seemed a bit fragmentary, as though they were referencing other, longer stories outside the scope of the book, which I believe some of them were. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, as you can still understand what’s going on even if you haven’t read the longer works, but I think you’d probably get more depth from the stories if you’ve read some of James A. Moore’s other novels that link back to the mythos he’s created. Also, a handful of the stories—as I mentioned, the ones that concerned a group of people trick or treating—were so similar that I mixed them up a few times, but the mood they conjured was so effective that it didn’t bother me all that much.
All in all, this was a strong collection of tales that had enough of a vintage Halloween atmosphere to put you in the proper frame of mind for the best day of the year. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends, and have a happy and safe Halloween!