Even as small children, the allure of Halloween to so many people is obvious. It doesn’t have quite the glitzy commercialism of Christmas, although recent years have started to close that gap. It doesn’t have the “family togetherness” angle of a lot of holidays, although clearly trick or treating with parents is a cherished memory for many. Like Easter, it has plenty of candy, but doesn’t have the religious angle, which is a plus: you get a ton of candy and all you have to do is dress up as something cool, not sit through a forever-long church service. But above all, Halloween is the first introduction of the real concept of danger in many a young person’s life. As a holiday, it’s unique in that it displays what many of us are determined to forget about in our day-to-day lives: death. However, this only comes into play if we let it. We don’t wonder where the ghosts that decorate our lawns and classrooms come from, but ghosts clearly come from dead people. We’re told to be afraid of the werewolves and the zombies, but that fear is something thought of in the abstract: be afraid of monsters because they’re scary. But why are they scary? Well, because they can kill you.
It’s interesting because most kids will pass by the ghoulies and the ghosts without a second thought, carrying that detachment from the imagery of Halloween into adulthood; they will see Halloween as a fun little diversion, nothing more. But some kids will be forever impressed upon by the imagery and the festivities of Halloween. Some will camp out in front of their televisions long past when they were supposed to be in bed to marathon horror movies that will haunt them long into adulthood. They will research haunted houses, go ghost hunting, and leave the library with their arms full of books about the occult, witchcraft, and demonic possession.
Why mention this? Why make a distinction between fair-weather Halloween fans and the diehards that celebrate Halloween in some form or another year-round? Well, because the definitive short story collection for those that fall into the latter camp has been found: The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween by J. Tonzelli.
Halloween is such a noteworthy holiday for so many kids because it runs an emotionally extreme gamut: excitement, wonder, joy, dread, fear, and even the aforementioned danger. The beauty of Tonzelli’s collection (his first) is that it encapsulates all of those emotions. While the majority is horror, he doesn’t skimp out on the smaller, quieter moments that help make Halloween such a special day.
Take, for example, “Hersh’s Last Ride,” a story about a hayride operator with a soft spot. Nothing about this story is profoundly scary (nor is it meant to be), but you get the sense that Tonzelli understands what makes Halloween so special. Sure, there are haunted hayrides and gruesome attractions, but it’s the little moments that make it such a beautiful night for so many. This idea is echoed in “Bloody Bones and Rags,” where the narrator tells the story of his Uncle Rich who passed down a sincere love for the holiday. It’s difficult to recall another collection that tries to really capture these smaller moments, and it’s striking that Tonzelli succeeds with such aplomb here.
That being said, most of these stories do traffic in horror, and it is masterful in its execution. One story, titled “The House on Deep River Road” has one of the best twists on the traditional ghost story I’ve yet to see, but whose twist shouldn’t be spoiled. Likewise, “Wind and Silence” seems like something you think you might have read, but rest assured, it isn’t. Even those with a thicker skin when it comes to horror might have to set down the book for a breather. “Wind and Silence” unnerves with its slow buildup and even when you know how it’ll end, it doesn’t lessen its impact when you get there.
Other stories lean hard into horror, but at no point do any of these stories feel like retreads. The subtle humor of “The Halloween Girl of Coldsprings” will sink its fangs into you, leaving you chuckling while recoiling in dread. “The Veil,” a story that centers on the belief that Halloween night is when the line between the living and dead is the thinnest, has plenty of creepy moments, but it’s the message that will resonate with you long after you’ve read it. “One Good Scare” veers off into the most unexpected territory and will have your jaw dropped when you see where it ends up. Most other stories have a strong mix of actual messages (remember those in horror?), humor, and even a little blood and gore dashed in for flavor. At no point is this collection a slog, and each story presents a new or interesting idea to keep you tearing through the book.
If this review seems short on criticism, it’s because this collection really does come together into a fully realized, cohesive collection. Far from being a random assortment of stories with a vague connection, each one feels labored over and deliberate, each a purposeful piece of a stunning whole.
In short, if you find yourself wanting a quintessential Halloween book that will sustain you until the next time the leaves fall, and have you jumping, gasping, laughing, and reminiscing in equal measure, look no further than The End of Summer. Just maybe try reading with a light on.
Final Score: 9.5