Thursday, October 15, 2009

Spookey Month: 13 Great Halloween Reads... and Jeffrey!

Here’s a list containing an unlucky 13 or so books-- okay, I cheat throughout the list so it's way more than 13-- to keep you shivering all October. Read them around sunset as the dark, bruised tree shadows lengthen and the sun sits above the horizon like a fat orange jack-o-lantern, with the world poised between the sunlight of reality and the twilight of some ineffable mystery…

1) Essential Tomb of Dracula volumes 1-4, by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan and Tom Palmer plus others. It’s the Lord of the Undead himself, the veritable king of Halloween. The fourth volume features some occasionally dodgy stories from the b&w Dracula Lives! and The Tomb of Dracula magazines, and the others have some hit-or-miss tales from the “Giant Size” comics Marvel put out, just Chris Claremont doing some Lovecraft pastiches and tossing in Dracula to justify them. They only serve to interrupt the flow of the monthly narrative; the hot, delicious blood running through the first three books consists of stories from the regular series. Wolfman’s prose purples ever so delightfully and Colan and Palmer work atmospheric magic that looks better in black and white than it ever did in that cheap four-color process they used back in the day.

2) Swamp Thing volumes 1-4 by Alan Moore and others. You know all about these, right? Just a couple of years after a low-budget Wes Craven movie dud, Alan Moore takes our ol' pal Swamp Thing down the strange, soggy paths of his fertile imagination. The first book opens with the classic “Anatomy Lesson” and closes with the genuinely scary “A Time of Running,” about a freaky demon-monkey that feeds on fear. Volume 3 has the Halloween-perfect stories where Swamp Thing learns he’s been charged with saving the planet from doom and has to fight a city of underwater vampires and a menstruating werewolf in a supermarket. Volume 4 has an atmospheric haunted house tale that doubles as an anti-gun screed and still has room for an apocalypse. After that, the series becomes more weird romantic fantasy.

3) Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams volume 3. As far as superheroes go, Batman is made for Halloween. And this book has the atmospheric but somewhat self-indulgent “Night of the Reaper,” the Halloween-themed classic where Batman and Robin go to Rutland, Vermont and experience the fun of the annual Rutland Halloween Parade. Turns out Robin’s college pals are all DC staffers or freelancers and Batman gets to attend one of super-fan Tom Fagan’s legendary Halloween parties.

The 2007 Rutland Parade:

4) Museum of Terror volumes 1, 2 and 3 by Junji Ito A rarity among horror comics—stories that will scare the living hell out of you! Ito Junji is a horror master. If you can find these books, you’ll meet Tomie, the girl whose beauty drives men to murder. Lots of really repulsive short stories that will make you shudder. These are out of print, so if you get to read them consider yourself lucky. And warned.

5) Hellboy: The Troll Witch and Others by Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell and Richard Corben. A collection of Hellboy short stories and the two-part "Makoma" illustrated by Corben. Any Hellboy trade will do, actually. I just happen to have this one within easy grabbing distance.

6) EC Archives: Tales from the Crypt volumes 1 and 2. You can’t go wrong with these wicked horror tales. They’re so nasty they caused the creation of the Comics Code Authority. But they’re also funny and occasionally amazingly advanced in terms of social consciousness. In a pinch, Vault of Horror will suffice. Or any of the EC Archives books; they all feature art by such giants as Jack Davis, Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels, Joe Orlando, Johnny Craig and others. Warning though—they may be over 50 years old but they do not stint on the gore.

7) Uzumaki volumes 1-3 by Junji Ito More Ito nastiness. In these stories, a seaside town falls victim to the increasing horror of… the spiral. Ito succeeds where HP Lovecraft failed—making geometry scary. Your blood will congeal as you watch a slothy high school boy turn into a giant snail, a man so obsessed with spirals he throws himself into a washing machine to become one, the joys of giving birth turn obscene and the catastrophic finale as nature’s ultimate spiral—the typhoon—visits devastation on the hapless citizens of the town.

8) The Best of HP Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. Speaking of Lovecraft... His prose is leaden and he overuses adjectives like "hideous," "loathsome" and "foetid" in a vain attempt to scare the bejeezus out of you. And there must be something somewhere in the universe that isn’t out to drag the Earth off to some nameless dimension for sinister purposes. Imagine if Lovecraft had scripted E.T.: Elliott would have ended up in an insane asylum and the guy with the keys would be narrating the story in a stentorian tone that leeches all tension save for those overworked descriptive terms. But the ideas behind the stories are wonderfully bizarre-- evil elder gods and strange cults devoted to them, alien races hidden in the hills and mountains of New England. Lovecraft, along with Jack Kirby, Kurosawa Akira and J.R.R. Tolkein, is one of the most ripped-off... er... homaged popular artists of the 20th century. Why not see where it all comes from? Standouts include "The Dunwich Horror" in which the monstrous Wilbur Whateley attempts to deliver our world to invisible presences from another dimension; "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" where we learn the secret origin of Tori Spelling; and "The Call of Cthulhu," where an intrepid investigator puts together various accounts from eyewitnesses, newspaper articles and diaries to catch a glimpse of something best left unseen.

9) Showcase Presents House of Mystery/House of Secrets by Various. These interchangeable volumes are like watered-down EC, but you can’t go wrong with the artist line-up. Alex Toth, Nestor Redondo, Neal Adams, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, Bernie Wrightson and more. Salted among a lot of Code-neutered “horror,” you’ll find a few classics like "The Demon Within" in House of Mystery volume 2. In this Jim Aparo-illustrated story, a little boy with a special talent freaks out his family of suburban conformists and an authoritarian surgeon. The final panel chilled me the first time I read it at the comic spinner rack as a child. It still does!

10) Creepy Archives volume 1 by Various. The classic Warren horror magazine reprinted in super-expensive format. The art-- especially the Frank Frazetta covers-- is unimpeachable, the stories less so. But it’s still retro-fun. This is probably true of the Eerie reprints, as well.

11) Salem’s Lot by Steven King. The novelist’s second book, when he was still hungry. A rippingly good yarn about how the banal evils of a small town enable a vampire to lay its collective soul to waste.

12) Hardboiled/Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto. Two novellas. The first provides its protagonist with a sort of supernatural catharsis. Along with Yoshimoto’s trademark spare prose and subdued emotionalism, it features some Lovecraftian touches. Yoshimoto admits to having a Stephen King influence in her writing.

13) Dracula by Bram Stoker. The original 1897 novel; it still holds up well today. Told in epistolary style (that is, through letters, diary entries and even newspaper clippings), its familiarity shrinks its fright-quotient down to nothing. But Stoker’s prose is vigorous enough to make Dracula a vivid, fast-paced read over 100 years after its publication and endless adaptation into various media.

Jeffrey) October Country or From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury. The former is a short story collection and the latter is a short story collection masquerading as a novel. October Country has "The Small Assassin," which anticipates Stewie Griffin by about five decades. Family Guy, have you no original ideas whatsoever? The Elliots of Indiana in From the Dust Returned will remind you of the Addams Family; there's a reason for that. It contains ample amounts of Bradbury's poetic prose, especially in the heartbreaking "The April Witch" and the tender "Uncle Einar." Nothing stays, everything goes!

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