SCREECH! for Hallowe’en

So, I’m honestly appalled that it’s OCTOBER 19 and I haven’t posted my usual Hallowe’en reviews. (You have twelve days left, just in case you lost count.) In past years I do feel like I’ve done more, and I did, in fairness, review The Little Kitten for you in July? But, excuses excuses! I’ve had this post in my back pocket for a while now, and haven’t written it, in essence, because covid has taken its toll on us all, and figuring Hallowe’en out is a complicated thing this year.

But, on reflection, this is a perfect Covid-19 time Hallowe’en book: Screech!: Ghost Stories from Old Newfoundland by Charis Cotter, with illustrations by Genevieve Simms. Nimbus sent this to me, very kindly and very quickly, so I got to read it before Hallowe’en, and I’m going to beg you– if you’re Canadian and want a copy, would you consider buying it from my old hometown book shop, Tidewater Books, in Sackville, New Brunswick? (If you’re in the USA, you may not want to pay international shipping, so I’ll let you buy it at your local shop or mine, here!)

Can we talk about Nimbus’s infallibly great cover designs? This is brilliant.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a girl for scary stories or scary movies and I still haven’t forgiven my dad for the day I was watching Disney’s Fantasia and ran away in terror from The Rite of Spring scene with the viciously murdery dinosaurs and he pretended to be a dinosaur and I fled sobbing upstairs. But: I love Hallowe’en. It’s not about scary for me… it’s about playing with identity through costumes, and it’s about the spooky, the unknown just around the corner… the unknowable, perhaps, as much as the unknown. That’s why you need this book this year. Allow me to emphasize: IF YOU HAVE HALLOWE’EN PLANS OR NEED TO MAKE HALLOWE’EN PLANS THIS YEAR, PLEASE BUY THIS BOOK, THANK YOU. LINKS ABOVE.

Let me explain my expertise: I had a childhood of Hallowe’ens in Sackville, New Brunswick. I’m not saying we did the most innovative and creative costumes every year (though the Three-Headed Monster costume was GENIUS, and I have yet to hear of a better idea from anyone ever), but the playfulness was there, and so was a bit of nice anarchy to accompany the homier traditions. We kids rambled and ran through leaves, probably making enormous messes that grown-ups had to rake up after us with a sigh. We had the perfect balance of tradition (my mother ALWAYS made us beans with hotdogs in them Hallowe’en night) and innovation (costume planning fun, slight alterations in route: “can we turn here?”, new pumpkin ideas) every year. The move to Toronto from Sackville, from a Hallowe’en perspective, was a severe disappointment. You couldn’t ramble, people drove around for trick-or-treating, which I consider, to this day, sacrilegious, and it was over way too soon. Too much candy, insufficient costuming. OBVIOUSLY no one baked, because the very IDEA of giving a stranger a homemade cookie is simply terrifying! I dunno, Hallowe’en in the Maritimes is a special thing, and I don’t think you city-dwellers have the right of it, sorry.

Now, what does this have to do with books, you’re asking? And would I please be so kind as to tell you about this book of ghost stories? Patience, readers.

This year is, you may have noticed, different. I don’t know about you, but my family’s decided against trick-or-treating this year (I’m sure this depends on location, but here in Massachusetts we’re being extra careful so that we don’t have to close schools again, basically). My Changeling will be changing costumes (probably three times, she has several ideas) at home, not rambling from house to house with her cousin. And I thought: “We have to do something special. We have to bring out the spooky playfulness of Hallowe’en at home.” We’re going to decorate. We’re going to have a backyard scavenger hunt to get a bit of candy in there, fine, but we’re also doing spooky candles (she thought we should put them in pairs to look like glowing eyes, isn’t that a great idea?), and I’ll make our traditional Hallowe’en supper (we don’t do beans with hotdogs, we do mac and cheese, and she can help me cut out cookies) and I have LOTS of stories she doesn’t know about yet.

Why emphasize stories, apart from the mere fact of “Deborah likes Hallowe’en stories”? Look, if you want spooky, what do you do? You sit by a flickering candle and read spooky stories, of course! Think of the background to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example! (Which is told in a great picture book, by the way.) But, more to the point of this post– think of the traditional ghost story: in the fall and winter, as the nights close in, you need entertainment… and the delightfully chilling and warming of a spooky story as you sit round the flames together, passing the hours with a yarn and a good apple and a drink… but then the winds batter the windows and somewhere a door slams and everyone jumps…! Now, that’s Hallowe’en.

In grad school, my supervisor had the right of it: every Samhain she read us a spooky story, usually translated from Old Irish, sometimes Middle Welsh, and we’d sit, rapt, listening to her. (Yes, my supervisor was the best.)

Now: if you want to experience that as a family, this book is for you.

OK, let’s circle back to my sentence where I said: “I’m not a girl for scary stories or scary movies.” That’s true. I actually read this book carefully and slowly and with trepidation. I’m such a wimp that I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula during bright daylight hours, laughing at the overdone descriptions and chuckling at the obviousness of it all… then couldn’t sleep all night and checked on my daughter about six times to make sure no one was hovering, bloodthirsty, over her bed. I’m a wimp.

And I read Screech! with zero problems sleeping at night thereafter, but with many a spooky shiver in the process of going through each delightfully told story as darkness closed around the house. There’s a difference between a horror story and a ghost story, and this collection nails it. Screech! is a beautiful book, and I can’t let this review go without nodding to Genevieve Simms’s evocative illustrations which enhance rather than spoil each story. It’s also a toolkit, rather than a horror novel. It tells of the mysterious, the unknown, the uncanny, the unheimlich, and the fabulous. Some stories breathe an air of potential danger– some of sorrow, loss, or desperation– but some are, instead, shadows of old joys, lingering on at the end of autumn with a wistful passing sigh… The idea is of ghostliness, not simply scariness, and I love the spooky, uncanny telling of a joyful ghost story as much as of a screechy, scary, cackling ghost story.

The images that flicker through each story still resonate in my mind, just as a good ghost story should: an eerie light in the darkness, fog over water, a shadowy dancer, a bell in the night, a blue shawl over a field…

But what I love best in this collection is this: as I said, it’s a toolkit, with instructions at the back to guide you through telling a scary story (or not-so-scary, but still spooky, story!), so you can share these stories with your kids and families. The book is introduced by information about where these stories came from, so that you can feel as firmly embedded in the hominess of the uncanniness as any Newfoundlander, and each story is followed by precise details about the gathering of each tale.

This is a brilliant book, and I felt nostalgic in the reading of it– I felt crisp air and crisp leaves, I started to panic about “oh no, what if it snows on Hallowe’en?” (that doesn’t happen here, but did back home occasionally), and I felt a yearning to make cookies. (I should really make cookies.) But I have the funniest feeling…

I feel like, even if you’re not from Atlantic Canada? I think you’ll still feel a creepy nostalgia in the reading of this book. I think it’s that sort of book, that takes you back home, that reaches foggy fingers into the “spooky” bit of your brain, and that you just revel in forever afterwards.

Please, consider getting this quickly before Hallowe’en! You have twelve more days! And then make cookies and hot chocolate, or mull some cider, get in costume, turn out the lights… light a candle (maybe pairs of candles, like glowing eyes in the darkness)…

And tell a ghost story.

(For Hallowe’en picture books: please search “Hallowe’en” on the blog and you’ll turn up lots! I may do a follow-up post with a link to all picture books for Hallowe’en here, but haven’t time right now.)

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