Introduction to The Last Night of October
I love it when people I know surprise me.
Yes, I know Greg Chapman and consider him a good friend, even though we have yet to meet in person. We became e-acquainted a few years ago when Rocky Wood asked us both to become part of a new project: I would co-author the graphic novel Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times with Rocky, and Greg would provide the art. Being a nearly-200-page graphic novel, that book took almost a full year to put together, and during that time I became an admirer of the way Greg’s art captured emotion; his renderings of faces expressing fury, lust, grief, or terror were all stunning, and so it didn’t surprise me to discover that he was also a fine, expressive writer. I read Greg’s novellas The Noctuary, Torment, and Vaudeville, as well as a number of works of short fiction, and I was soon a fan of both his art and his words.
Now, before I tell you what surprised me about The Last Night of October, there are a couple of things you should be aware of. First, I know kind of a lot about Halloween…as in, I’m one of the experts, the author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween and The Halloween Encyclopedia (now in an expanded second edition).
The other thing you need to know: Greg is Australian.
In case you’re wondering what those two things have to do with each other and how they linked up to surprise me, here it is: During my Halloween research, I discovered that Australia is the only major English-speaking part of the globe that has never succumbed to the charms of Halloween. The related holiday of Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Day (held on the Fifth of November, another name for the festival) was celebrated until recently in nearby New Zealand, but aside from a few brief spurts of Halloween interest (mainly driven by merchants), Halloween has yet to take root in Australia. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing, since October is no longer an autumnal time down under…although it has become popular in South Africa, also in the southern hemisphere, so even that doesn’t quite work. Whatever.
So, what surprised me about The Last Night of October was how well it captured the feel of Halloween. Better, in fact, than many American authors – who grew up with the holiday – have been able to do. I read (as you might guess) a lot of Halloween fiction; I’ve even guest-edited the Halloween issue of an online magazine, for which task I read dozens of Halloween-themed short stories. Many of the stories had obviously simply crammed a mention of the holiday into an existing plot; others presented trick-or-treat in such a perfunctory way that they bored even me, the Halloween expert.
Halloween fiction has gained a major foothold in the horror genre over the last decade-and-a-half, and so much of it has started to resemble each other. Tropes have become established: The small town, trick-or-treat, a creepy house, an ancient evil. Scuttling autumn leaves. Cold winds out of nowhere. Flickering jack-o’-lanterns.
Here’s one of the other things that surprised me about The Last Night of October: It inverts many of the tropes, in ways I haven’t seen done before. The story’s protagonist is not a kid out in his costume going from house to house, but is instead from the other side of the trick-or-treat ritual: a homeowner expected to dole out candy. The story’s main setting isn’t the outside world, with its seasonal smells and weather, but rather a claustrophobic home. And the nostalgia that informs so much modern Halloween fiction is here revealed to also be the source of the evil.
Of course flipping Halloween fiction around on its ear, and yet somehow still capturing the essence of the holiday, aren’t what make the first reading of The Last Night of October so compelling. No, that turn-the-page-as-fast-as-you-can thing derives from Greg’s considerable storytelling gifts. He has a rare ability to combine suspense and surrealism with pathos and tragedy, all wrapped in a gift box of pacing and a unique style and characters that remind us of people we know.
All in all, I can’t think of another recent piece of Halloween fiction I’ve enjoyed as much as The Last Night of October.
And from an Australian, yet.
The Last Night of October is now available for pre-order.