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Hydra, the short e-horror publishing arm of Random House, has released a lot of great work in the form of the “Dark Screams” anthologies. That series offers a fistful of horror stories in each volume at bargain prices, edited by Robert Chizmar and Brian James Freeman of Cemetery Dance. Hydra’s not only continuing on that series past its original first five volumes, it’s also releasing a new series called “Halloween Carnival” edited by Freeman. It, as the title indicates, collects short stories centered around Halloween. Sounds good to me.

Hydra – 2017.

Horror maestro Robert McCammon starts this volume off with “Strange Candy.” A father finds a strange piece of candy in his daughter’s Halloween goodie bag, an unwrapped and somewhat freakish ghoul hand. While watching his traditional horror film on Halloween, he makes the decision to eat the piece of candy—and in return, he’s greeted by a procession of five spirits, one for each finger, each with a message for him to pass on. This wasn’t the kind of story I expected from McCammon, but it is a sure Halloween treat, juicy and sweet without being too saccharine or mushy… just like the best kind of strange candy. One of my favorites in the collection, and we’re off to a good start. (It’s also the only story that’s not an original, dating back to McCammon’s blog from 2012.)

Kevin Lucia’s “The Rage of Achilles, or, When Mockingbirds Sing” makes this collection worth the price of admission alone. A Catholic priest makes a lonely vigil at the confessional one Halloween night, only to receive a tragic confession from a stranger. This man’s confession tells how his mentally handicapped son was struck by a truck several years before, and now, on the eve of that son’s favorite holiday, the man plans to seek revenge on the truck driver. The priest makes a frantic attempt to stop further tragedy, having uncovered a tragic loss without end… A very sad and haunting story that’s both effective and really well-written.

John R. Little’s “Demon Air” follows a woman taking a discount flight to Australia, hoping to learn more about her ancestry after learning that her unknown birth father was an Aborigine. As the flight crosses the International Date Line and October 30th turns into Halloween, things take a nightmarish turn. This was a great setup for a story, but the ending peters out; it feels like the beginning to a solid longer piece with the protagonist’s depth and curious ancestry, but the story ends well before it arrives at a fulfilling climax. All that potential—great atmosphere, interesting characters, evocative horror twist—feels wasted and not entirely fulfilling.

The first “longer” story, Lisa Morton’s “La Hacienda de los Muertos,” takes a different track. Set in 1958, washed-up cowboy actor Trick McGraw heads south o’ the border to film a discount Mexican horror-western, a movie based on the “wailing woman” La Llorona legend. Trick gets more than he bargained for when ghostly “publicity stunts” start to seem like he’s in a real-life ghost story. Along with bullfighter-turned-actor Javier, Trick sets out to uncover the truth behind La Llorona. It’s a neat and fast-moving story that wraps up well; I loved its unique concept and historical setting, and I think that bumped up my opinion of the tale. It’s nothing exceptional, but it’s well crafted, unique, and has a wonderful twist ending.

The longest story is Mark Allan Gunnels’ “#MakeHalloweenScaryAgain,” taking up just under half the collection’s page count. A small-town horror writer makes a few obscure Facebook posts about bringing back the old-time scares of Halloween, using the same hashtag as the story’s title. Nobody seems to pay much attention to the tag… until a serial killer starts murdering the town’s residents, throwing suspicion on a very confused writer. As the town bows to the killer’s demands to take Halloween into their hearts, things spiral into chaos as they brawl over plastic spiders and Styrofoam tombstones at the Dollar Store. I did figure out the killer’s identity far too early, but it’s well-written and engrossing enough—with a nice, modern “slasher” movie vibe—that I didn’t mind reading on to find myself proven right.

Overall, a solid collection; it has a distinct “quiet” horror feel that reminds me of Charles L. Grant (among others), with most of the stories lacking the guts, gore, or visceral scares that some readers associate with horror. Four of the tales I’d rank as good-to-great, and only one didn’t do much for me; in rough order, I’d rank the stories from best to worst as: Lucia, McCammon, Morton, Gunnels, with Little bringing up the rear. At its bargain price (the MSRP is $2.99), a Halloween fan who reads ebooks can’t go wrong here. I’m interested to see how the rest of the series compares, and if other volumes keep the more quiet style of horror seen here.

Book Details
Title: Halloween Carnival: Volume 1
Editor: Brian James Freeman
Publisher: Hydra (division of Random House LLC)
Release Date: 3 October 2017
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC recieved through NetGalley)
ISBN/ASIN: 9780804176651 / B01NAR7R4W