Richard Chizmar, ed.,
Trick or Treat:
A Collection of
Halloween Novellas

(Cemetery Dance, 2001)

Richard Chizmar, the mastermind behind Cemetery Dance, has brought together five of horror's biggest writers for this collection of holiday horrors. Now, I'm going to be honest: If you're looking to Trick or Treat for sleepless nights of bone-chilling horror, you're going to be disappointed. But if you're looking for some very well-written stories with some spooky themes and mostly believable characters, then this collection is right for you.

The first story, Al Sarrantonio's "Hornets," is a story about a children's horror writer who finds his greatest creative achievements at the same time as his wife's mysterious disappearance. Toss in Samhain, the Celtic Lord of Death, and some pesky hornets and you have a pretty decent story with a little less than surprising "surprise" ending. This story isn't exactly what you'd call "exciting," but the characters are very believable and the slight wondering of what has happened to the writer's wife makes this story definitely worth the hour or two it takes to read.

The next story, "Tessellations" by Gary A. Braunbeck, is perhaps the most Halloweenish story in the entire collection, perhaps even the most frightening. "Tessellations" starts as a young woman named Marion comes home after hearing of her father's recent death, only to find her brother completely out of his gourd, and her childhood invisible friend who has a gourd as a head, Jack Pumpkinhead. This story is very enjoyable, and like its title suggests, there are many different layers of subtext dealing with families, memories and how one deals with the passing of one's loved ones. At times, this story is a bit hard to follow, but I think this is due mostly to the limited number of words. As far as scares are involved, for me "Tessellations" is the scariest story in the book.

Following that is Nancy A. Collins' "The Eighth Devil," another very fine story that moves away from the supernatural side of horror and focuses on the darkness that can be inside the regular Joe Schmo's soul. This is the story of four unfortunate boys who come from poor and broken families; live with inept, sometimes drunken and dangerous parents; and worse yet, are just too old to trick-or-treat anymore in the little Arkansas town of Seven Devils. This is the story of how those four boys meet the town's boogeyman, the Eighth Devil. This is another really fun read, with a bit more excitement than "Hornets" and a little less complicated than "Tessellations." The characters are fun (one is named Pony, and I can't help but wonder if all the characters in this story aren't based a little on S.E. Hinton's novel The Outsiders) and there are a couple of authentic twists and surprises in this story. Collins penned a good story here, and one you'll continue to think about after you've finished turning the pages.

Then comes Rick Hautala's "Miss Henry's Bottles," which for me turned out to be the most disappointing story in the collection. It's not because the writing was bad. Actually, the writing was really wonderful. It wasn't the characters; I found myself attached to the young protagonist, Andy, from the first couple of pages. Hautala crafted some great characters, in a town that felt real to me, using a style that sucked me in and made me think that I was reading the best story in the batch. That is, until I turned the last page and had to ask myself, "That's it?" Three-quarters of this story is amazing; it will suck you in and hold you captivated, but the last quarter is nothing but one implausible event after another, leaving me feeling completely let down. This was like a Halloween version of waiting a whole year to meet Santa Claus only to find out he's just some fat guy with a fake beard.

Thomas Tessier's "Scramburg, U.S.A." is also pretty disappointing. Having nothing to do with Halloween other than the fact that the last couple of pages happen on that date, this story tries to make the reader sympathetic with a hardcore criminal the way Frank Miller manages in Sin City, but fails to do so. This story is about a bad man who is kicked out of town only to wreak his revenge on that town again and again. This tale's biggest weakness is the total lack of empathy for any of the characters involved. While some of the secondary characters begin to take on a semblance of real-life people, this impression of real people never reaches the protagonists and antagonists. Of all the stories, this one is the weakest, and while it keeps the collection from ending with a bang, at least it keeps readers from putting the book down in disgust before the last story.

All in all, Chizmar has managed to bring together a collection of novellas that are well written and a pleasant way of spending a couple of afternoons. None of the stories are particularly frightening (with maybe the exception of Braunbeck's), but most of them are well written with characters that one can identify with (especially Hautala's tale, which if you only read up to the last 10 pages, you will not be disappointed). If I were to rate this book on a nine-fingered scale, with nine fingers being divine and one being hellish, I'd give this book somewhere between a 6 and a 7. I'd say a six if one was looking at the book as a horror collection, but if one was looking at it as simply another work of fiction, I'd give it a 7.

Chizmar's Trick or Treat: A Collection of Halloween Novellas is like a real basket of Halloween goodies: inside there's some of the really good candy bars, there's some of run-of-the-mill lollipops and candy corn, and occasionally, you come upon a crappy ol' toothbrush or carrot. Half the fun is going through the candy when you get home to find out what you've got.

by Gregg Winkler
11 February 2006