Halloween is in less than a week! These days it’s all about pumpkins and candy and navigating the steep, narrow path between “great suit, Bill!” and “Could I see you in my office, Bill?” But the holiday has deep roots in Catholic tradition and many pre-Christian cultures. Two important Catholic holidays – All Saints Day and All Saints Day – as well as many agricultural holidays around the world have ties to what may seem like a very secular holiday.
In the world of literature and media, Halloween is also associated with horror. A few years ago on Halloween we asked America editors and contributors to recommend their favorite terror stories. The results included literary classics as well as unexpected gems.
Richard Doerflinger on Dean Koontz: “For decades, a religious outlook has permeated Koontz’s work, making him the most popular explicitly Catholic novelist in the world.”
Without a doubt, my own extended experience of literary terror was that of Stephen King THIS, since turned into a (great) TV mini-series and two (mediocre) movies. And two of King’s other novels made the America listing. But THIS is big and wide, at over 1,100 pages, and for long stretches it’s not a horror novel at all, but a long coming-of-age tale. You don’t read it on a terrified night, even if you don’t approach a sink in the dark for many moons either. For the true “night of scare” experience, I had to go with Dean Koontz’s Midnight.
Part of the terror of Koontz’s hectic visit to the town of Moonlight Cove is that every character who becomes a monster seems perfectly benign: a priest having breakfast, two loving parents, a sheriff. But there was also something about the way Koontz described the gait of the half-human ghouls of Midnight that scared me of the beach at night for years: “wading by the foamy seashore, hopping on all fours, the size of a man but certainly not a man, for no man could be as quick and graceful in the posture of a dog.
I wasn’t the only contributor to choose Dean Koontz: Richard M. Doerflinger chose what the night knows, warning that it is “not for the faint of heart”. Doerflinger is familiar with Koontz’s work, having written a fascinating profile of the author for America in 2018. He noted that Koontz, who was raised Catholic and returned to the church as an adult after years away, is as much a religious writer as anything else. “For decades, a religious outlook has permeated Koontz’s work, making him the most popular explicitly Catholic novelist in the world,” he writes. To put it mildly: Koontz has sold nearly 500,000,000 novels.
Robert Sullivan on Flannery O’Connor: “Piety, certainty, and an unexamined life often propel a protagonist to a kind of damnation on earth. It scares me more than zombies.
But why would a religious author “promote the truth about the world through tales of horror and violence”? Doerflinger noted that one of Koontz’s favorite authors is Flannery O’Connor, who “sought to ‘make belief believable’ in an increasingly secular world by placing characters in situations that disrupt their lives (and shock the reader) to the heart.”
O’Connor was another’s choice America Scariest Tale Contributor: Editor Robert David Sullivan picked his short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” “Extreme gore makes me want to put a book down, but it also dissipates pretty quickly from my mind,” Sullivan writes, as O’Connor’s fiction relies less on blood than on terror: “Piety, certainty and an unexamined life often propels a protagonist into some sort of damnation on earth, which scares me more than zombies.
Of them America the editors chose Edgar Allen Poe; both are Jesuits, a religious order for which Poe had some affinity; legend has it that Poe—who lived near the Bronx campus of Fordham University and was friends with Edward Doucet, SJ, who later became Fordham’s president—enjoyed the company of the Jesuits because they were “gentlemen and very cultured academics, they smoked and they drank and they played cards, and they never said a word of religion. Probably apocryphal (I’ve never seen a source), but as the Italians say, se non è vero, è ben trovato“Even if it’s not true, it should be.”
AmericaJoe Hoover’s poetry editor, SJ, chose Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” less a story of suspense than sheer mischief, and one imitated countless times on movie and television screens. America editor Matt Malone, SJ, chose Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The macabre tale of a disembodied heart that won’t stop beating (or is it the author’s own heart beating in his chest?) caused some terror in a young Malone at the age of 12 “I think of Poe every time I’m lying in bed and aware of my heartbeat. Secondly, since then, I have never been able to sleep comfortably in a room whose door was not locked.
Edgar Allan Poe had interests other than the occult and the terrifying, as detailed by Franklin Freeman in Americain his 2021 review of John Tresch The reason for the darkness of the night. Poe, according to Tresch’s account, was more of a science writer than a teller of dark tales. He paid close attention to scientific developments throughout his life and regularly revised scientific books and periodicals. He even wrote a textbook, The first conchologist’s bookwhich became a bestseller.
Many scientists also credit Poe with creating an early version of the “Big Bang theory” about the creation of the universe. “After the death of his wife Virginia, Poe, in the fall of 1847, wrote his last major work: Eureka: a prose poemalso called An essay on the material and spiritual universewrites Freeman. “Here Poe offered his version of the Big Bang and the pantheistic idea that mind and matter are one.” It was Poe’s most cherished writing: he told a relative that “I haven’t wanted to live since I did ‘Eureka.’ I couldn’t accomplish anything more.
Did this prolonged immersion in the world of science over his lifetime paradoxically make Poe so brilliant at telling supernatural and terrifying tales? Tresch concluded that Poe had “sharpened the piercing light of reason and deepened the darkness in its wake”.
Happy Halloween! Sleep well.
Matt Malone: ”I think of Poe every time I’m lying in bed and aware of my heartbeat. Secondly, since then, I have never been able to sleep comfortably in a room whose door was not locked.
Our selection of poetry for this week is “The Naming”, by Christine Higgins. Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.
In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this gives us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.
Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:
Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America
William Lynch, America’s Greatest Jesuit You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
The Spiritual Depths of Toni Morrison
Curé, sociologist, novelist: the many imaginations of Father Andrew Greeley
Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life
James T. Keane