This is a transcription of Episode 17 — Halloween: Costumed Revelry, Voices From Beyond, and YAY, Candy!
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Episode 17 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we are all about celebrating Halloween.
Melissa: I love it.
David: Yeah, yeah, today we are going to talk about five books we love that brought out the creepy for us —
Melissa: Maybe more than five.
David: And then I’m going to talk to Steve Bissette.
Melissa: Which is very exciting.
David: Yes, Steve Bissette is a lovely man. Steve Bissette is a lovely man who spent most of his life trying to scare people.
Melissa: Which is so funny because he’s, like, the warmest, kindest —
David: He really is —
Melissa: sweetest, most intelligent, well-spoken.
Melissa: And then he draws really scary things.
David: Yes. That’s exactly what he does. And he writes really scary things. He’s a comic artist, and he’s an illustrator and a writer. He’s best known for his work on The Saga of The Swamp Thing.
Melissa: Dun dun dun.
David: And he’ll be here to tell us what scares him.
Melissa: I’m really excited about that.
David: I am, too. Do you remember your best Halloween costume?
Melissa: I think my favorite costume is from a few years ago when we were living in White River Junction, Vermont, and I had a haircut that had reached a very awkward growing out stage. And I realized that it looked like Edgar Allan Poe’s hair. [laughing]
David: So you’re going from like a bob to sort of a medium length. And it was a spot that was in between that nobody woudl really want.
Melissa: And it really looked remarkably like Edgar Allan Poe when I parted it on the side.
David: So leaned into it.
Melissa: I did. I went to the Goodwill and I bought a black suit and wore a white shirt and I put white powder on my face and black eyeshadow to give myself cheekbones. I’ve never had such good cheekbones as I did that Halloween and carried a copy of The Raven. And you, David —
_David:__ I got a nice black suit and a raven mask, like, a full-head raven mask. And I walked behind as the raven. And yes, there are pictures of all of this and we’ll put it on Instagram. Mel looks fantastic.
Melissa: It was the best Halloween ever because I didn’t have to worry about looking cute. Very relaxing. Yeah, there was no sucking in or worrying if I still looked pretty. I just had to scowl at everyone. It was great.
David: My favorite Halloween costume, I was eight years old, so 1973, and I wanted to be a wizard.
David: Yeah. My mom made me a robe which was very uncharacteristic of my mom. My mom’s not a ‘Oh hold on a sec. I’ll set something up for you.’ [laughing]
Melissa: Because she’d have to put her book down.
David: Yes, exactly. Exactly. What what would be the point? So she made me a robe. And sewed a start onto it, and my dad got a dowel and painted it black and they put a big golden star on top of it. And I had one of those conical wizard hats and I was thinking back on this: one of the best parts of that is I got a fake beard.
David: Which felt very mysterious at the time. I put on the so on the fake beard and then how would you know who I was?
David: ompletely mysterious. Vanished into a crowd. The eight-year-old with a full black beard to his chest.
Melissa: OK, question. When you actually went trick or treating, did you have to put a coat on over everything and ruin it?
David: I didn’t.
Melissa: Oh that’s so lucky. Yeah. That was the bane of the existence in Pennsylvania. You would get this cool costume and then it would be time to go trick or treating and you’d have to put your stupid parka on over your costume.
David: Yep. I was in northern Ohio at the time and we had that same thing. I just got lucky that year.
Melissa: Anyway, you guys, if you feel like sharing what your favorite costume is, hit is up on social media or send us an email and tell us because we love Halloween and we love to hear from you.
Melissa: Yeah, photos would be most appreciated
David: Are you ready to give us the Halloween 101?
Melissa: There were so many things I could have talked about for Halloween. I decided to dig into the history a little bit and talk about supernatural creatures and how they came to be associated with Halloween.
David: Oh, awesome.
Melissa: So Halloween is developed from the ancient Celtic ritual of Samhain, which is spelled Samhain: S-A-M-H-A-I-N. So if you’re going about your day, reading about it is going to look like Samhain; it is pronounced Sow-win. This was a festival celebrating the changing of the seasons from light or summer to dark winter. The ancient Celts believed, and this is the really cool part, that on October 31st the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was much flimsier than usual, and the spirits could come and walk amongst us.
Melissa: So October 31st was a pretty dangerous night when malicious spirits and fairies were out there causing mischief. To ward off evil during Samhain, they would carve turnips and stick a candle inside of them, or light a bonfire. They also dressed up as animals and monsters —
David: To scare them away>
Melissa: So that fairies weren’t tempted to kidnap them.
David: Oh, OK.
Melissa: Yeah, they kind of out-scared everybody. And this is important. They left cakes on their doorsteps to appease the spirits that might wander their way. They left their doors and windows open to invite the dead in to eat treats that they left on their tables.
Melissa: That seems a little dangerous to me.
David: The pictures I’ve seen of fairies gathered at a dining table did not suggest to me that I wanted to recreate this in my home.
Melissa: No they have scary teeth. Halloween was brought to America by early settlers from Europe, mostly Irish immigrants who came to the United States to escape the potato famine. But it was not popular at all in New England because of the rigid Protestant religion.
David: Now, that’s funny.
Melissa: Hey, Puritans! No Halloween.
David: The Puritans lost that one in the long run.
Melissa: Yes, they did.
David: New England is huge with Halloween.
Melissa: Part of that is because in 1820, Washington Irving wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and that was the first American ghost story that featured Halloween.
David: Really? So it mentions Halloween right in the story.
Melissa: It’s set on Halloween, and it’s based on Celtic lore. According to legend, on Samhain in Ireland, headless men could be seen writing flame-eyed horses and carrying their own heads. And if you saw them, it was a death omen.
Melissa: I mean, you’d have to be pretty confused to think it was a good omen. The other part of Samhain that we have co-opted and evolved a little bit is that in Ireland, on the nights leading up to Samhain, when people would go door to door singing songs for the dead and they were given cake as a reward. And that’s how we got to trick or treating for candy.
David: Ah, Halloween caroling.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah.
David: So the picture that I’m getting is it’s like the 1800s, it’s dark because it’s late in the year. People are outside walking around with candles, singing dirges, wearing scary costumes, and other people are opening the door and letting them in and feeding them cake.
Melissa: So associating spooky creatures, especially ghosts, with Halloween makes sense. The veil between the next world and this one is thin. Spirits are coming over to say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ But I got really curious about why vampires and witches and werewolves came to be associated with Halloween. So we’re going to take a little trip into that. . We’re going to start with vampires.
Melissa: I wrote quite a lengthy explanation of vampires and literature on our website last year, so I will link to that in show notes. But basically, just about every culture has some version of bloodsuckers going all the way back to the Mesopotamians. This is an ancient, ancient idea. There was a fear that the dead could rise from their graves and suck the life from the living. And in lots of cases, rather than killing them outright, it would just slowly turn the victim, draining their life force away. And there is a medical explanation for that.
David: What is that medical explanation?
Melissa: Chronic anemia is caused by a shortage of iron, and that would make people look very, very pale and be tired all the time. And it can also make people sensitive to light and exposure to direct sunlight, if you have very bad anemia, can cause blisters.
David: Whoa, really?
Melissa: So thousands of years ago, the only thing that made sense, if someone was very pale and tired all the time is that they had been bitten by a vampire.
[audio clip from film of Count Dracula]
Melissa: The Western standard for vampires, kind of handsome aristocrat who’s very charming and suave, first appeared in 1819 in The Vampyre by John William Polidori. His name may or may not be familiar. He was one of the people at that famous country house party where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.
Melissa: So from that party, we got Frankenstein and one of the first vampire stories.
David: That’s a good party.
Melissa: That was a great party. But the rico suave vampire, really got established with Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897.
Melissa: Werewolves might also have a medical explanation. One possibility is a rare disease called porphyria. It promotes excessive hair growth and a tightening of the skin around the gums, which can make someone’s regular teeth look like fangs. Another option is, of course, rabies. Vecause it can be passed to humans from wolves and dogs.
Melissa: There is actually a mental disorder of lycanthropy in which the sufferer genuinely believes that they are a wolf, so all of these would have seemed just inexplicable and supernatural before modern medicine.
David: Sure, it is not hard to imagine word-of-mouth mutating those really quickly into people who are wolves.
Melissa: Particularly if you just saw a really big wolf in the woods outside your village a couple of days ago.
Melissa: Where wolves are now associated with Halloween because of a misunderstanding of the moon. Legend has it that werewolves appear on the night of the full moon. And popular myth always associates Halloween with a full moon. If you look at any illustration or story: ‘It’s Halloween. There’s a full moon — ‘
David: Or movies.
Melissa: Yes. So that is how werewolves and Halloween kind of became conflated together.
David: In truth, a full moon and Halloween only occur together once every 19 years. And this year is one of those years [sound of wolf howling]
Melissa: Which is very exciting.
David: It is. It’s a very exciting.
Melissa: I’m ready for my transformation. [laughing] I mean, really, 2020 could give us a massive werewolf infestation. And I’d be like, ‘Of course.’
David: Sure, let’s roll it. Yeah.
Melissa: Let’s move on to another W. Witches!
Melissa: Again, we have to look back at Samhain. On October 31st, dead souls return to the cauldron of life and death, which is overseen by the crone goddess. And in the cauldron they await reincarnation.
Melissa: According to lore, witches’ power is increased tenfold on Halloween night, and that’s why witches hold their great Sabbath on October 31st.
[sound of witch laughing]
Melissa: Let’s talk about zombies.
David: Ok, let’s talk about zombies.
Melissa: Like vampires, the notion of zombies has existed in cultures around the world for thousands of years. Zombies have always been with us.
David: Sure. I mean, that’s an easy myth, right? The dead get up and walk at night.
Melissa: Yeah. Shamble.
Melissa: The Romans were very concerned that corpses could rise and inflict illness on the living, but the shambling version who are hungry for brains that we know is mostly from Hollywood. And is mostly based on the beliefs of slaves living in Haiti during the 17th and 18th centuries. And that has its roots in African culture. I’m gonna bring the room down for a minute. For many slaves, the only way to be delivered from their misery was death. And they hoped for a spiritual return to Africa. But if they committed suicide to hasten the process, they were forced to roam the plantation as zombies: dead, but still slaves. That is where the original zombie stories came from.
David: I read this really interesting book last year that talked about why we need ghosts, and part of it was just trying to process the guilt.
David: Of things that have gone wrong, of people who are dead. And I thought that was just a fascinating look at that, just like a really interesting angle to take on the entire like every ghost story ever, you know?
Melissa: Well, you and I have talked about that a lot. How, you know, if someone said to me, ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ I would most likely say ‘no.’ Do I believe people can be haunted? 100-percent yes. It’s just how it manifests, I guess.
Melissa: Zombies are associated with Halloween because that’s the one night of the year when it’s easier for the undead to break through the veil.
David: Plus scary.
Melissa: Plus scary, which is fun. And also sad. But fun.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I’m ready.
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know which one is true. I had to work on this a bit because Halloween, as we know, is a time of shading the truth.
Melissa: Hmm. Tricksters are about.
David: Tricksters are about. I finally got to a theme that I like. These are all paranormal and the US government.
Melissa: Whoa. Well done.
David: Thank you. Statement number one: The US government has a military plan in the case of a zombie invasion. Statement number two: Necromancy is illegal in San Francisco. For those of you who don’t play Dungeons and Dragons, necromancy is the art of speaking with the dead or using the dead as a weapon.
Melissa: Using the dead as a weapon!
David: Yeah, you can animate skeletons and have them attack your foes.
Melissa: Makes note to self. Is necromancy legal in the Czech Republic?
David: And then the third statement: In New Jersey, if you’re trying to sell a haunted house, you must disclose that, but only if you’re asked.
Melissa: Ok, I’m going to start at the end. I think the last one is true because of the Amityville Horror.
David: [laughing] It is true, but not because of the Amityville Horror. According to Zillow, there are four states that have disclosure laws concerning paranormal activity: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Minnesota all have laws that you must disclose whether you believe the property you’re selling is haunted, but only if you’re asked. No. In New Jersey, if you think you have a ghost problem, you only need to disclose it if you are directly asked.
Melissa: So audience members in New Jersey, if you go house hunting, make sure and ask if the House is haunted.
David: Yes. And there’s even a case in the New York Supreme Court about a haunted house. The seller claimed it was haunted and then sold it without disclosing that. It went to court because the buyer didn’t want to pay the seller for a haunted house. And the majority opinion came back with its conclusion. And I think this needs to be the start of a novel. This is actually written into New York State law: ‘Having reported the ghost presence in both a national publication and the local press, defendant is astopped to deny their existence, and as a matter of law, the house is haunted.’
Melissa: That’s amazing. One of the justices had to write that. Someone transcribed. Someone typed it up. Stamped it official.
David: Yeah, it’s on books now. I love it.
Melissa: OK, so that leaves us with the zombie attack. And what was the second one?
David: Necromancy in San Francisco.
Melissa: I think it is true that the government has a plan for a zombie attack, even though that seems a little silly.
David: So the plan is called CONOP-8888. It’s 31 pages long. It models different possible undead threats and what we might do about them. There’s a multiphase plan that ends with restoring civil authority. The plan was originally put together as part of a training schedule on how to make plans.
Melissa: That’s cool.
David: Yeah, I would like to point out that that is exactly what they would say if there was a top-secret zombie fighting document.
Melissa: It was just a thought exercise.
David: CONOP-8888 is unclassified, and you can download it and read it if you like. Although a better read along the same lines is Max Brooks’ World War Z. It covers similar territory in a way more entertaining way.
Melissa: Ok, that means the necromancy San Francisco thing — lay some science on us next.
David: Necromancy is legal in San Francisco, but you need a permit.
[melissa laughing a lot]
David: This all got started because San Francisco lawyers were trying to protect people from fortunetellers. And so they made a permit. You go down to the police station, you pay $350. There’s a background check, you get a public hearing. And if you get approved, you get a permit to divine the future. For what it’s worth, $350 dollars is more than the permit to be a masseuse, but less than the permit to be a walking tour guide. The legal language is fascinating. I was going to read the whole thing, but it’s a bit long. I’ll say that, among other things, the San Francisco Municipal Code 1302 permits the telling of fortunes or the reading of the past by any means. And it specifically mentions tarot cards, coins, sticks, tea leaves, and coffee grounds.
David: Yeah, it specifically mentions necromancy, as well, and the practice of necromancy. It covers spells, charms, curses, and potions. And it lists a bunch of reasons why someone would want these things done, including getting good luck, stopping bad luck, shortening a person’s life, winning the affection of a person, or finding where money or property is hidden.
Melissa: I noticed that hexes weren’t mentioned. So are you telling me that hexes are not covered by this permit?
David: I’m betting that hexes are part of the language.
Melissa: What about potions?
David: Potions are definitely in.
David: And then the very next sentence in the law says, quote, ‘Fortune-telling shall also include pretending to perform these actions.’
David: So if you have a kid, you live in San Francisco, you dress him up as a fortune teller, you’ve got to pay the $350 fee.
Melissa: No charlatans.
David: Yeah, that’s it. You got it right.
Melissa: Hooray! We should be keeping track of my record.
David: I think it’s pretty good. Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: Of course.
David: Let’s do it.
Melissa: I should begin by saying that I took this assignment quite literally. So not only are my book recommendations filled with atmosphere, all of the books I’m talking about today are set on Halloween.
David: Nicely done.
Melissa: And I got a note from someone on social media that said, ‘I’m a scaredy cat. Can you please recommend some books that are not too scary so that I can celebrate Halloween, too?’
Melissa: So I’m just going to talk briefly about two books that are completely not scary, but capture Halloween, so that people who fall into that camp don’t have to sit there on pins-and-needles waiting for us to talk about books that aren’t scary.
Melissa: The first is called Basic Witch by Harmony Hart.
David: That’s a great title.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s really cute. It’s a very light kind of romance novel and cozy mystery set in Salem, Massachusetts, on Halloween. Our heroine, Gemma, has just inherited a magic shop, and she’s learned that she’s descended from a family of witches. And then there is a murder in the magic shop. She, of course, is determined to solve the crime, and she’s aided and abetted by a cast of supernatural creatures who live in Salem, including fairies, leprechauns, witches, vampires, shapeshifters, and more.
Melissa: This book is just 200 pages. And it’s basically the equivalent of eating an entire bag of many Reese’s peanut butter cups. It’s really sweet and fun.
David: And there it is.
David: There it is.
Melissa: My second non scary recommendation is The Curse of Braeburn Castle by Karen Menuhin. And this is another cozy murder mystery. It’s set in 1921, and it is a quadruple whammy of a strong sense of place.
David: How’s that?
Melissa: It’s set on Halloween. In Scotland. At a manor house. On an island. Someone is found dead at the base of the tower and there is a question about whether he jumped or was pushed. And as you’d expect in a golden age mystery, there is a motley crew of suspects. The story includes a skeleton discovered in the wall, a jewelled crown that goes missing, long-held family secrets, a seance, and a group of archaeologists, including a beautiful, smart woman archaeologist with lots of moxie. There’s also a dog and a cat and a raging storm.
David: That sounds great.
Melissa: Yeah, there’s lots of atmosphere. It is not scary at all. But it’s a really fun. So you get to enjoy the tropes of Halloween in a golden age cozy mystery. The Curse of Braeburn Castle.
Melissa: Now, onto my first somewhat scary recommendation. This is a novel called Pine by Francine Toon, and it is really, really eerie and unsettling. Super atmospheric ghost story also set in the Scottish Highlands near the Moray Firth, which is an inland on the North Sea. All of the action takes place from Halloween night through November 5th, which is bonfire night.
David: What is Bonfire Night?
Melissa: It’s also known as Guy Fawkes Night, that might be more familiar to people.
David: Of course, this is ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November.’
Melissa: Yeah. So back in 1605, a group of conspirators put 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellars underneath the houses of parliament. They wanted to blow it up and return England back to being a Catholic country. But the plot was uncovered and Guy Fawkes was arrested and executed. So on Bonfire Night, there are fireworks. Yay, fun. Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy on bonfires. And this is a reminder to people that treason will not be tolerated.
Melissa: So this is a very dramatic time of year, right? We’ve got Samhain. We’ve got Bonfire Night, and the action of our story is taking place between those two things. Our heroine is Lauren. She’s a preteen girl and she lives with her father in a small village in the highlands that’s surrounded by pine forest. And her mother has gone missing. Lauren’s life is really not great. She’s bullied at school and her dad kind of fell apart when her mom disappeared and hasn’t really put himself back together. So Lauren has kind of passed from person to person in the village, but nobody really takes care of her completely. And it’s very poignant because you can see the people are trying, but what she really needs is her parents.
Melissa: So it’s Halloween night. Lauren has been trick or treating with her friend and she and her dad are driving home and they see a mysterious woman in a white flimsy gown on the side of the road.
And her father picks up this waif-like woman and takes her back to their house.
David: Do you ever wonder why people in horror stories don’t realize they’re in a horror story? [laughing]
Melissa: Well, and it’s really well written because Lauren is very curious about who this woman is, and her dad has a very strong reaction to the woman.
Melissa: He’s protective of her and puts her in the car and takes her home. Lauren is so used to weird things happening that she’s just, like, ‘OK.’ In the morning, the mysterious woman is gone. In the wake of that, a string of mysterious events follows, including a local girl going missing.
Melissa: So the plot is all about solving these mysteries. Who is the woman in white? What happened to the girl who went missing? What happened to Lauren’s mom? But that’s really just an excuse to be immersed in just amazing atmosphere and to get to know these really complicated characters. I felt very protective of Lauren. She’s a little odd, but odd in the way we’re all odd and have our own little quirks. And there are some really, really sweet, melancholy details.
Melissa: For example, when she’s getting dressed as a vampire to go out trick or treating with her friend, she uses her mom’s red lipstick that she found in her room. And she keeps a knife that was made from an antler in her pocket just in case she needs to protect herself.
Melissa: he uses tarot cards and an old spell book to try to make sense of what’s happening in the town. It’s a really kind of quiet, unsettling novel. If it was a movie, there would be no jump scares. It’s more like when you see something out of the corner of your eye and then you turn your head and it’s gone. There’s more of that feeling. It really nicely incorporates a lot of the tropes of Gothic fiction. So: isolated houses and ghostly images, unexplained phenomena that could have a rational explanation, but we’re not sure if they do or not. And conversations between people that get started and then ominously just kind of drift off without ever being completed. But it’s all really quiet instead of that over-the-top melodrama that we usually associate with Gothic fiction.
David: OK, so it’s kind of in the direction of The Haunting of Hill House?
Melissa: It is in terms of the atmosphere. I’m going to say: no disrespect to Shirley Jackson, the language in Pine is really beautiful.
David: Really? All right.
Melissa: From the first page, the tension and the suspense stay at this kind of constant simmer of dread. There is very little release while you’re reading it. It’s just, AAAAH. It’s really, really good.
David: I wish I could have seen Mel’s face just then. [laughing]
Melissa: The author Francine Toon was brought up in Scotland. She has won a bunch of awards for her poetry. And that shows in her prose because it feels like each word is serving a very specific purpose and is intended to create a specific effect. And like all ghost stories, it is very melancholy. And sometimes bleak. It’s about the ways that people can be haunted by their mistakes and by guilt, which we already talked about, and by fear and maybe by ghosts. It was great. That is Pine by Francine Tune.
David: That sounds awesome. OK, my first book is Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. I love so many things about this book. Let’s start with the premise. So there’s a boy, he’s fifteen. His name’s Will. He has a brother. In the opening pages of the book, Will’s brother is murdered. He’s shot down in front of their apartment building.
Melissa: That is a sad beginning.
David: It is. Will wants revenge. Well, it goes up to his family’s apartment and he gets his brother’s gun. He talks it in his waistband and he leaves. He’s up on the seventh floor and he’s on his way to kill his brother’s killer. He calls an elevator. He gets in the elevator, and then on the way down to the ground, the elevator stops at every floor. And at every floor, a ghost gets in.
Melissa: What?! I was not expecting that. That is awesome.
David: Yeah, yeah. And on the way down to the ground, the ghosts talk to him about the murder that he is about to commit. The author described it is as A Christmas Carol meets Boyz N the Hood. And it totally is. The book is about 300 pages long and most of it covers a minute. One minute in Will’s life.
David: That’s the length of the elevator ride down. The 300-pages long thing is a little deceptive because the book is written in verse.
Melissa: Wow. I feel like I keep saying ‘wow.’ But everything you say is surprising me.
David: That’s I think that’s why I love this book. It’s written and it sounds like street poetry. The author was a street poet before he wrote this book. Here is a clip of the author reading his work.
[clip of audiobook: Don’t nobody believe nothing these days, which is why I haven’t told nobody the story I’m about to tell you. And truth is, you probably ain’t going to believe it either. Going to think I’m lying or I’m losing it. But I’m telling you, this story is true. It happened to me. Really. It did. It so did.]
Melissa: So did his voice is very rich. I really would love to listen to that.
David: If it’s not entirely clear. The book is available as an audio book. I listened to the book while I read the book, which I don’t know — I just really —
Melissa: A multimedia experience. That’s cool.
David: It takes about an hour and 45 minutes to read it. I am not nearly the first person to discover this book. It was named a Newbery Honor book, a Printz Honor book, and it won an Edgar for best young adult work. If you’re not familiar with the book awards, that’s an award for children’s literature, teen literature, and an award from the Mystery Writers of America. The publisher says the work is intended for grades seven to nine. I always think writings like that are a little bit ageist, but I understand why they exist. Oh, and the book is coming out as a graphic novel this month.
Melissa: Oh, that’s really fun.
David: Yeah, I haven’t read it, but what I’ve seen looks good. You could double up on the graphic novel and the audio book and it would almost be a movie.
David: So now we need to talk about the author for a second. Jason Reynolds was a poet before he was a novelist. He was raised loving rap culture. His earliest influences include Queen Latifah, Tupac, and Bigge. His first poem was written to honor his grandmother at her funeral.
Melissa: Oh, that is so sweet.
David: Yeah. He says he didn’t read a novel until he was 17, mostly because nothing spoke to him. And then he was working at a bookstore and he read Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and then he started reading everything in the bookstore. He’s written a bunch of things, all of them, I think, intended for middle-grade readers. This past January, he was named the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. It’s a two-year position. If you want to do your heart a favor, go to YouTube and check out the videos of him talking to children about books.
Melissa: Oh, so sweet.
David: Yeah, he seems to be just a lovely man.
Melissa: I have a question about the book. What is the tone of the story? How did you feel when you were reading it?
David: The story kind of plays out as a conversation between a bunch of characters and Will, this boy, about basically gun culture and murder in his neighborhood. Some of the ghosts that he runs into are not happy about their fate. Some are certainly more kind to him. Some of the ghosts, he’s very happy to see. Some of the ghosts he’s surprised to see. It is not an angry work, I don’t think. It strikes this kind of cool balance between tough and almost loving. It feels like the author wants the character to do the right thing, you know, and he’s trying to give them a path to do the right thing a little bit. I really enjoyed that book, and I really enjoy knowing that author is alive and doing stuff right on. Yeah, that’s Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.
Melissa: Would it surprise you to know that I’m going to cheat again?
David: Zero. Zero percent.
Melissa: I’ve chosen to talk about two classics in my next book slot allotment of time: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
Melissa: I’m also going to very strongly recommend that you enjoy these on audiobook, if you can, because both of them make for great listening experiences. They also work really well on the page. I was surprised — and this is this is going to make me sound very ignorant, I think. But I was surprised at how beautiful Bradbury and Irving’s writing is. The descriptions and the language are fantastic. And it was great to listen to them. But if you like to highlight, you might want to read them on the page. We will begin with _Something Wicked This Way Comes. Here’s the setup.
Melissa: A carnival called ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandamonium Shadow Show’ arrives in a small town by train sometime after midnight. It is one week before Halloween. I mean, that’s a perfect setup in my book.
David: Yeah, I agree. Totally in on that.
Melissa: We meet two best friends: Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. They are inseparable and they are as different and as similar as best friends can be. They’re almost 14 and their birthdays hint at their characters because Will was born one minute before midnight on October 30th and Jim Nightshade was born one minute after midnight on Halloween. You learn that early in the story and that influences how they behave throughout the book.
David: I think I read this when I was 16, and I loved it, but I do remember getting to that detail and being like, ‘That’s a little heavy-handed, Buddy.’
Melissa: It’s a little on the nose, but I enjoyed it. One night, Will and Jim go exploring on the carnival grounds. They run into a bunch of really scary carnies and they see something they should never have seen.
David: What is it?
Melissa: I’m not going to tell you. That’s the linchpin of the book! But that sets off a chain of events that threatens, literally, to kill them and destroy the town. I feel like one of the things that makes this book extraordinary is that it is a story about the carnival and the peril that these children are in. But really, it’s about courage and how beautiful life is and how life is worth living, even when it’s difficult and messy. And it’s about the loyalty between these boys and the relationship between Will and his father and good versus evil and how hard it can be to be a good person, given the things that life throws at you.
Melissa: Ray Bradbury’s writing is — As I was reading it, I kept looking up at you. I don’t know if you remember this. I kept turning to you and saying, ‘Do people know about this? Do people know how good this is?’
Melissa: Because it was new to me. This is my first Bradberry and I associate him with science fiction. So I didn’t realize it was going to be so moving and so beautifully written. One of the things I found particularly resonant was — the story is about how when you’re young, you can’t wait to be grown up, and when you’re old, all you want is to be young, and I don’t know if that comes across if you read it as a teenager, but reading it as an adult, I both identified with the kids and with Will’s father.
Melissa: It’s very emotional, but it’s also wildly entertaining. Yeah, I really loved it. That is Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Melissa: Moving on my second book before David makes me stop: _The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This is another classic that I had not read previously. It’s only about 100 pages. And if you listen to it on audio, it’s about 75 minutes. So it’s like a little literary Halloween snack. You can enjoy this on a Saturday afternoon. I feel like it’s one of those stories that is in your consciousness, even if you haven’t read it because there’s a Disney movie.
David: Yeah. That’s it. Right. We all seen the Disney cartoon.
Melissa: And then there’s the 90s movie with Johnny Depp: Sleepy Hollow.
David: Right. Or any number of, you know, The Simpsons retold the story or, you know, the adaptations are out there.
Melissa: So you think you know the story. And you do know the bones of the story.
David: Because it’s a two-ac story. ‘I’m worried something bad is going to happen. Oh, something bad happened.’ And we’re done.
Melissa: So let’s talk about the book itself. It’s set in 1790 in the village of Tarrytown in upstate New York, in a secluded valley called Sleepy Hollow. It was a Dutch settlement that is well-known in the world of the book for its ghost stories. The town’s favorite ghost story is the tale of the infamous Headless Horseman. He’s the spirit of a Heshan soldier whose head was blown off by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War. Unable to rest, he rides his mighty black steed through the local woods on a nightly quest for his head.
Melissa: The other primary character is, of course, Ichabod Crane. He’s a teacher and he is new to town and he is a piece of work in the book. He’s grasping and gluttonous and super judgemental and a social climber. Ichabod immediately becomes besotted with two things: the story of the Headless Horseman and Katrina Van Tassel, the beautiful daughter of the richest man in town.
Melissa: And he starts pursuing Katrina and finds himself in a love triangle with her and the handsome Brom Bones. On Halloween night, there’s a big autumn party, and all of the tensions that have been simmering in the town since Ichabod arrived explode and eventually the headless horseman gallops onto the scene.
[sound of horse neighing]
Melissa: I was not expecting this book to be so funny.
Melissa: The narrator. It has an unnamed narrator. And he’s very — he or she — is very quick-witted and has a really wry tone. So he’s kind of relaying, but also a little bit poking fun, at the people in the events on the story. The description of Ichabod is a master class on how to convey character through appearance. I think we should just enjoy a little snippet of that.
[clip of the audiobook: He was tall but exceedingly lank with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small and flat at top with huge ears, large, green, glassy eyes and a long snipe nose so that it looked like a weathercock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the Earth or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.]
David: So not your typical hero.
Melissa: Definitely not. I mean, Brom Bones is the more typical hero. He’s very handsome and polite and intelligent. And Ichabod is none of those things.
David: In the versions that I’ve seen, we’re not supposed to like Brom Bones.
David: Is that different in the book?
Melissa: Honestly, I feel like we’re supposed to be rooting for the Headless Horseman in the story [laughing]because Katrina Van Tassel’s not very nice either. Which brings me to my final point about this book and maybe why we’re having trouble answering the question of who is the hero in this story. The residents of Sleepy Hollow are super bougie and snobby, but they’re really unsophisticated, but they’re wealthy and they live in this town kind of looking down their nose at everyone who’s not moneyed. So the story is really poking fun at the class consciousness of the time and kind of shining a light on the tension between people who lived in the country and people who lived in town. So Irving was trying to tell an entertaining story, but he was tackling these big issues of the time and making it more palatable by giving us a showdown on a covered bridge with a pumpkin flying through the air, so you can enjoy it on multiple levels, even though it is only 100 pages.
David: Yeah. So Irving didn’t like any of those people?
David: Nobody in the story. Maybe the Horseman.
Melissa: There’s a really loving description of cakes. [laughing] That is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
David: My second book is Small Spaces by Katherine Arden. You might know Katherine Arden from her wildly successful book The Bear and the Nightingale. That book is a historical fantasy novel set in medieval Russia with a lot of elements from Russian folklore. This book is very different from that. This is a suburban horror story intended for middle grade readers. It feels very much like a Steven Spielberg-Stephen King production that’s shooting for like a PG-13 rating.
David: The story starts during Halloween. We’re in a suburb. Everyone has their homes decorated. Jack-o’-lanterns are out. There’s a not very well-liked heroine. She’s 11. She likes to read. Her name is Ollie.
Melissa: I’m already on Team Ollie.
David: Yes, I am strongly on Team Ollie, as well. Ollie has a hard day and she’s on her way to her favorite secret spot. It’s next to where the local river runs down a mountain. There’s a rock that’s kind of half hidden by the waterfall where she likes to sit and she gets there and she sees a woman who’s a stranger to her, which is unusual because it’s a small town.
David: The stranger looks like she’s been crying for a while and she’s holding something in her hands. It turns out it’s a book.
Melissa: A mysterious stranger with a book!
David: Yeah. The stranger is clearly not OK. She announces her intention to throw the book into the water to get rid of it all. Ollie is a book lover, so she’s sort of strongly against this idea. The woman says she has to throw the book into the river because it’s part of the bargain.
Melissa: Oh. This is amazing. I’m riveted.
David: Snd she’s almost about to throw it, and Ollie grabs the book and runs away and she’s running away. And as she’s running away, the woman tells her, ‘I’m going to tell you one thing because I’m not a bad person.’ [laughing] It’s always scary when people qualify that.
Melissa: Yeah, that’s good.
David: And then she says, ‘Avoid large places at night, keep to small.’ And that’s the setup.
Melissa: That is a very strong premise.
David: Isn’t that nice? I’m not going to tell you a lot more —
Melissa: Yeah, you can’t tell us anything else.
David: Yeah, I will say that I was surprised at how much I cared about the characters and how effective some of the scary stuff is. I really enjoyed spending time with Ollie. She’s kind of tough and independent and also insightful. There’s a lot of atmosphere in this little story. There are spooky monsters and corn mazes and weird bus drivers and big, bad, supernatural, evil guys. And there’s witches in houses hunting for children. There’s a contact with beings from beyond the grave. There’s a whole category of creepy things that I won’t give away that you can read.
David: I will give you an example. Ollie has a digital wristwatch, one of those sort of old LED things. And it seems to talk to her with these little eight letter phrases from time to time. And at one point she looks at it and it’s counting down. And under that, the readout just says, ‘RUN.’
Melissa: Whoa! That’s pretty intense. I mean, if I look down at my Fitbit and it was counting down and said, ‘Run,’ I would be genuinely terrified.
David: Fact. I really enjoyed this book. I think it’s probably best in the hands of someone who’s just a touch young for Stephen King, but who’s still looking to stay up late and under the covers with a flashlight, looking to be scared in the safest way possible. If you know somebody like that or if you have a nostalgia for that feeling. This is your book. Also, if you enjoy this book, there’s a second in the series that’s already out. It’s called Dead Voices in which our heroes are off to a place called the Hemlock Lodge.
Melissa: Perfectly safe at Hemlock Lodge.
David: And there are two more on the way. The third one should be out next year. That’s Small Spaces by Katherine Arden.
Melissa: That sounds really good. I want to read it. In the book Bunnicula, which I wrote about on our website last Halloween — it’s a children’s book about a bunny that may be a vampire — there is a character who on Friday night is allowed to stay up as late as he wants reading and eating snacks. And I feel like Small Spaces is the perfect book for that. And I know what I’m doing next Friday night
David: Solid choice. What’s your last book?
Melissa: My final recommendation is Kill Creek by Scott Thomas.This is the literary equivalent of an over-the-top slasher movie, and it made all of my Halloween haunted house reading dreams come true.
David: Glad we got at least one of these because this has been sort of a PG-13 show.
Melissa: This is the exact opposite of Pine. Where Pine is quiet and melancholy and atmospheric, this is big and loud and brash and fun and definitely has jump scares. The premise to me was absolutely irresistible: Foor very successful horror novelists are invited to spend Halloween night in an infamous haunted house in rural Kansas. The abandoned mansion is called Finch House, and it has a very creepy history. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will tell you there are twins and a super-disturbing tree involved.
Melissa: Getting the four authors together is a publicity stunt that was arranged by an Internet guru. And as we get to know the authors and their works, it becomes obvious that all of them, including Internet dude, are keeping secrets and are wrestling big-time with personal demons from their past. But they all survive Halloween night in the house. No big deal.
Melissa: Which was really interesting. There are a couple of creepy experiences, but everybody survives, nothing too deadly or dangerous happens. The next morning they say goodbye and they go their separate ways. That is when the story really starts. It was so good.
David: So the evil follows them home.
Melissa: Perhaps it does.
Melissa: This book starts out eerie and slowly grows more graphic and gory, so it invites you in and lets you get to know the characters before the violence kind of erupts. There are a few scenes or episodes in the book that are straight-up like a slasher movie. So anyone who’s enjoying our show, if that is not your thing, this is not going to be for you. The ending was fantastic. I never saw it coming.
Melissa: Very surprising ending. It was great. And for me, this was just the right level of scary. It gave me tingles up the back of my neck most of the time, and I was able to read almost all of it at night. When I got to the last couple of chapters, I remember I was in bed reading on my Kindle, and I got to a point where I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m just going to finish this tomorrow’ because it just got to a point where it’s like a little too scary to read at night.
Melissa: I knew if I woke up in the middle of the night and had to go to the bathroom, I was going to think twice about putting my foot down on the floor, wonder if there was something under the bed kind of situation. It’s very cinematic, which makes a lot of sense because the author, Scott Thomas, has written scripts for Netflix, Syfy, MTV, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon, and he was nominated for an Emmy for his work on an R.L. Stine adaptation.
David: Oh, really? All right.
Melissa: He gets all of the horror tropes exactly right. That makes it really fun because it’s very familiar. So you kind of think, you know what to expect. But it’s also really entertaining. And he does have some surprises up his sleeve. Kind of reminded me a little bit of the movie Scream where it plays with the tropes. I really love it for Strong Sense of Place, not just because it’s set on Halloween, but his descriptions of this abandoned house and the countryside around it and the weather and this really unsettling rural setting just on the edge of town are very, very vivid.
Melissa: And I feel like he got the kind of annoying hubris of the Internet guru and the competition between the author is really right. The characters are really — in a way, they’re kind of archetypes — but then when they interact, it’s really interesting. So I feel like he’s playing with all of the things we kind of expect to happen.
Melissa: Scott Thomas has said that he was inspired to write this novel by two things. The first was that he just kind of wondered what would happen if you took horror novelists in real life and put them in a situation where the things happen to them that they do to their characters.
Melissa: What would that be like? And the second is that he was a student at the University of Kansas. And when you drive from Lawrence to Kansas City on K-10, there’s an exit for a town called Kill Creek.
Melissa: And those two ideas collided for him. And this novel is the result. I’m not the only one who liked it. Kill Creek was nominated for Bram Stoker Award in 2-17 and was selected by the American Library Association as the top horror book of that same year. That is Kill Creek by Scott Thomas.
David: Those are many books we love that brought Halloween to us. We will be back in a moment with horror legend Steve Bissette.
David: I’m here with Steve Bissette. Steve is a cartoonist, illustrator and a writer. He’s perhaps best known for his comic work on the ground breaking Saga of the Swamp Thing. His latest writing includes a book on David Cronenberg’s 1970s horror film The Brud and fictional work on a collection called Studio of Screens. Thanks for being here.
Steve: Thanks for having me.
David: So let’s start at the beginning a little bit. How did you get started drawing scary things? What what brought you to the Hall of Horror?
Steve: Well, it was three things and I’ll list them in order. Number one, dinosaurs. I was born in 1955, so I grew up in that late ’50s, early ’60s dinosaur boom. I labored mightily to draw dinosaurs and I think part of the intoxication for me is that I knew right from my first conscious memories that they had once lived, but they weren’t here anymore. And the fact that every adult in my world was of the consensus that these things had once lived, that made them even cooler than just being dinosaurs.
Steve: And then that led to my love for monster movies, specifically the dinosaur and the giant monster movies that I would see on television. And that led to the third influence, which was a magazine that was very popular among my age group called Famous Monsters of Filmland. And we could buy the newsstand. It it did very well. In fact, by the time I had enough pocket money from cashing in returnable bottles and working for the family store, there was a whole bevy of of imitation monster magazines on the newsstand.
Steve: But Famous Monsters was the best of them. And I had a next door neighbor in Duxbury, Vermont, who I recently rekindled contact with, Mitch Casey. He was my best friend for many years in my early childhood. Mitch was the first person I ever saw draw a comic. Oh, he folded a piece of paper and made like a mini comic. And he drew this comic called ‘Attack of the Giant Flies.’ And I remember a page with, like, these two guys up on a dam and they’re firing machine guns. And when you’re a kid, when you showed somebody firing machine guns, you’d have little gashes coming from the barrel. And it was just the image he had. It may have been the cover he drew, but it may have just been the panel inside that I love of these two guys up on a dam and they’re firing at this big giant fly that’s zooming in on them. And it was really seeing Mitch do that that made me want to do my own comics. And Mitch and I both loved Famous Monsters of Filmland. In fact, the first copy I ever saw was a copy Mitch had purchased and that was it. I mean, I would copy photos out of famous monsters. And I had already worn out a lot of my favorite comic books by copying the dinosaurs out of the comic. And that was that was the connection there. And and I never stopped doing it. And here I am still doing it.
David: Can you recommend any good books or movies or graphic novels for the season?
Steve: I think I can.
David: I thought you might.
Steve: In terms of graphic novels I am revisiting From Hell, which is the Jack the Ripper graphic novel that Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell collaborated on. Eddie has just supervised the publication of a new color edition of _From Hell. It was always a black and white graphic novel. I told you I mentioned earlier that the one Halloween thing that Marge and I are planning on is to revisit Young Frankenstein, the Mel Brooks film. Something I can recommend to your listeners and to any of your listeners who are either timid about horror themselves or are partners with or married to someone who is timid about our horror. Marge and I had a lot of fun last year. I think I had more fun than she did. But Marge had never seen the original Universal Frankenstein Films.
David: Oh, really?
Steve: Yeah. And she went to watch Young Frankenstein. That’s something we do pretty much every year around Halloween. And I said, ‘Well, this year, let’s change it up. You’ve never seen those films. Why don’t we watch all the films that Mel Brooks was making fun of and then we’ll watch Young Frankenstein.’ And Marge got into it. You know, those 1930s and early 1940s horror films are pretty safe viewing in the year 2020 — as in not particularly scary.
David: A lot of good use of black and white.
Steve: Oh, they’re beautiful. And I would I would argue that at least one of them, The Bride of Frankenstein, the James Whale film, is a work of art. I just think that’s one of the great movies of all time, period. So that all that is to lead up to the revelation that I have another Halloween movie I am going to watch with Marge this year, and it is the film version of Cats. [laughter]
David: You’re cruel.
Steve: You get it! Some people say, ‘Steve, that’s not a horror movie,’ and I beg to differ.
Steve: My favorite horror movie of 2020 — in part because I got to see it at a drive-in with my son, my son Danny was now 34 — and it was it was the last movie-going experience I had in the real world of going somewhere. It’s a movie by the Pierce brothers called The Wretched. They shot it up in the Midwestern states. It’s a very low budget little movie. And it’s a great little film about a teenage boy who his parents are separated, and he’s been told he’s got to live with his dad over the summer and he has to get a job because he he did something wrong that you find out about later in the film. And it’s one of those movies — it’s sort of like Rear Window, like, watch the neighbors and what’s wrong with that neighbor over there. And this kid begins to piece together that something is terribly wrong in the house next door to where his father lives and works. And they develop it very imaginatively. And it’s one of those movies that you start catching what you think are errors in the film, like, Wait a minute. Oh, that doesn’t… But it all adds up. Like, the error — the things you think they’re doing wrong are actually part of the storytelling and I love that kind of story. And it’s integral to the narrative that these things are happening the way they’re happening. So I highly recommend the wretched. It’s it was really good. And it is a witch movie. I will put that out there, too.
David: So what are you working on now? What’s what’s your latest stuff?
Steve: My latest stuff, appropriate to the month and the season — I am working on a second and third volume of a book series I’m doing called Cryptid Cinema. And it’s a genre that has been written about more and more of late, but nobody had really defined it. These are films that revolve around cryptids. Cryptids are unidentified animals. So any species of animal that people have said they’ve seen or found or whatever, but it hasn’t been accepted by science is technically accepted. And the famous example is, of course, the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, Big Foot. You got it.
Steve: So I did a book back at the end of 2017 called Cryptid Cinema. That was the first volume. And now I’m working on trying to finish up two new volumes, one of which is dedicated entirely to a film called The Legend of Boggy Creek, which came out in 1972. And it’s a little movie. You know, its was a low budget independent film, but it changed everything. And it really is the movie that all this current television we’re subjected to on Discovery Channel and Nature and all that, all these shows about hunting Bigfoot and so on. It all comes from The Legend of Boggy Creek. So that’ll be out sometime next year. And that’s what I’m working on right now.
Steve: And the other project I’m working on right now is a book called Alan Moore and Me. And I’m doing the interviews that I did back in the ’80s and ’90s. And I’m collecting some of the articles and essays I’ve written. And there’s five or six guest writers who have written essays that will also be in the book, and it’ll be out sometime in the next year or so. And I’ve also got two sketchbooks coming out that are sketches of of monsters. What a surprise, right?
David: Oh, yeah.
Steve: The two sketchbooks are called Brooding Creatures, and the second sketchbook is called Thoughtful Creatures, and those will be out within six months.
David: That sounds great. I look forward to seeing those. Steve, I want to thank you for your time. This has been a lovely talk.
Steve: This has been great.
David: Thanks for listening to our Halloween show. I hope you all get full-size Reese’s cups.
Melissa: Yes, none of that snack sized stuff this year. Full-size candy bars only.
David: You can visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for all kinds of spooky stuff. Mel, can you tell us about the blog post you wrote to celebrate the spirit?
Melissa: I may have gone a little overboard for Halloween this year. We have a roundup of very spooky short story collections that you can read for Halloween. I’m a big proponent of sitting in a closet with a flashlight and reading a short story to whoever you can make sit in the closet with you. This is a really fun activity.
Melissa: We also have two recipes for Food+Fiction: one sweet and one salty. Those will be rolling out over the next two weeks. My Weekend Getaway picks for the next two weeks are also going to be Halloween-related. We have a Halloween playlist that you put together last year that is so much fun.
David: We do! If you need music, I think it’s about an hour and 15 minutes worth of music that evokes Halloween that does not include Monster Mash or the Ghostbusters theme. I’ve got you covered.
Melissa: We also have a recipe for vampire-fighting pork stew on our site from last year.
David: That is a delicious stew that we have not had in ages.
Melissa: And I’m going to recommend that you maybe grab a copy of Dracula, make the stew, put on Dave’s Halloween playlist, and just really immerse yourself in the vibe.
David: We haven’t mentioned in a while that we are on the social medias.
Melissa: We are. I run our Twitter account.
David: Yes, I take care of Facebook and together —
Melissa: We tag team. We tag team on Instagram. We didn’t even practice saying that in unison. It just happened. That was amazing. We’ll probably be sharing some Halloween costume photos over the next few days.
David: Mel, can you tell us where we are going for our next episode?
Melissa: We are heading to the Middle East, to the land formerly known as Persia. We are getting curious about Iran.
David: We’re going to the Middle East for the first time. That’s going to be exciting.
Melissa: So many good books.
David: A very sincere happy Halloween to you all.
David: I hope you have a lovely holiday and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Kris Mari.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page 2020 Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is © 2020 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.