“Living with the Ghosts of Halloween” (by Toni L. P. Kelner)

Agatha Award winning author Toni L. P. Kelner has written several stories for EQMM, including two pirate tales. How appropriate, then, that she’s blogging for us on Halloween, when many of the costumed villains appearing at your doors will, no doubt, be of that swashbuckling variety. These days the Boston area author mostly writes about “ghoulies and ghosties.” She is the co-editor, with New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris, of a series of paranormal anthologies, the fourth of which, An Apple for the Creature, came out in September. Under her pseudonym Leigh Perry, she’s started a new “Family Skeleton” series with Berkley Prime Crime, the first book in which will be The Skeleton in the Armoire (September 2013).  Who better to start off a mysterious Halloween for us?Janet Hutchings

I adore Halloween, and always have. I love it when the decorations show up, the costume stores appear like magic, and spooky music fills the malls. Of course, Halloween these days is big business. The holiday I remember mumblety-mumble years ago, when I was a young goblin, was much simpler. Still, my witch’s brew had certain key ingredients:

1.     Dressing up

What’s Halloween without pretending to be someone or something you’re not? Now, my childhood costumes were not overly elaborate. One year I was a princess in a chintzy costume-in-a-box with a stiff plastic face mask, and other years I wore my big  sisters’ ballet costumes from past recitals. (I wore the red satin gypsy costume two years in a row because two of my sisters had danced in the same outfit, giving me a smaller size and a larger size.) Some years I recycled my own ballet costumes—one memorable getup was a pink fur bunny costume from my bravura performance at our dance studio’s Easter fashion show. Plus there were the usual handmade creations—a pirate with cut-off shorts and an itchy mustache my mother painted on with mascara, a witch with a construction-paper hat and another sister’s Puritan costume, and so on.

Still, no matter how modest the costume, I happily imagined myself in a different life for the evening.

2.     The Halloween Carnival

My elementary school had a wonderful carnival every year, with each class’s parents adding to the festivities. There was a haunted house (which wasn’t all that frightening even when I was in third grade); a ventriloquist act (the ventriloquist dummy was considerably more creepy than the haunted house); various games with darts, rings, and ducks (everybody won a prize, and other than the glory year I won a shiny red baton, I always got white plastic bears, which fortunately I liked); a costume contest (I won second place wearing that pink fur bunny costume), and cake walks (the best part of which was that everybody who played got a cupcake). In later years they added a moon bounce, and it was well worth the damage to my costume to go in that thing.

3.     Trick-or-treating

Dressing up, wandering in the dark, getting candy. What’s not to love?

As the youngest of four girls, I was always accompanied by one or more sisters while my parents stayed home to give candy to other kids. The best parts of this were being out at night without the aforementioned parents, getting to play with the flashlight without worrying about saving the batteries in case of an emergency, and going to those special houses that had spooky decorations.

I even loved trick-or-treating the year it rained all night. My mother dressed us kids up in old coats and hats instead of costumes so we stayed somewhat warm, if not particularly dry. That was also the year someone gave my sister a rock wrapped in tin foil, just like in the Charlie Brown Halloween show, and we all got a huge kick out of that. I also remember one family who refused to give us candy, saying that the city had moved Halloween to the next night. My sisters and I weren’t the tricking type, but those guys sure deserved a trick for that. (Yes, I do hold grudges.)

4.     Candy

That’s another no-brainer. I mean, candy!

And it wasn’t just eating the sweets, though that was certainly enjoyable. I had enormous fun counting how much I’d gotten, sorting it by categories and quality (miniature candy bars were the gold standard—Bit-O-Honey was the one nobody wanted), gloating over it, and hoarding it until my mother threw away those last three Bits-O-Honey around Christmas time.

As time has gone on, my Halloween traditions have changed, of course. Some years I still dress up, but mostly I confine myself to festive pins, though this year I do have a set of Halloween Mickey Mouse ears I’m dying to try out. The Halloween carnival morphed into a bland fall festival run by professional fund-raisers rather than by parents giving kids a good time, and I don’t think they’ve given out white plastic bears in years. As for the candy, I’m a giver of treats now, instead of a receiver, but that’s fun in a different way. (We always give out good candy, by the way—never Bit-O-Honey.)

In looking back, I think the reasons I enjoyed that version of the holiday are the same reasons I enjoy the writing life.

Start with the dressing up. Though I may not sew up the costumes, I definitely put myself into different lives in order to write about them. Sometimes those characters are more mundane—regular people in today’s world—but sometime I pull out the funky costumes, and write about vampires and werewolves and zombie raisers. My current work-in-progress features an ambulatory skeleton named Sid, which has forced me to get under the skin of a character who doesn’t actually have any skin.

Then there’s my analog to going to the Halloween carnival: attending conventions. What’s a convention but bunches of people all gathered together to have fun? True, they don’t usually have moon bounces, but there are costume contests and party buffets that sometimes include cupcakes. I’ve even brought home prizes ranging from free books to writing awards. Plus I’ve never seen a ventriloquist at Bouchercon or Malice Domestic, which gives conventions the edge.

I’ve got to stretch my metaphor just a bit to fit in trick-or-treating, but it’s not unlike book promotion events. I put on my author costume, go out among strangers trying to look cute, and hope to come back with goodies. The goodies these days are monetary, but no less sweet to me. Nobody has ever tried to pay for a book with a rock wrapped in tin foil—I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or disappointing.

And you remember that grudge I still have against the family that wouldn’t give my sisters and me any candy one rainy Halloween night? Back then, I had no way of exacting revenge, but now I have the perfect trick to play. I can plop them into a book and beat them up, arrest them, even murder them! Like Halloween pleasures, that never gets old.

Then there’s my somewhat obsessive behavior with Halloween candy. If we let the candy represent money, or perhaps sales figures, my candy hoarding now turns into careful accounting, sales tracking, and income projection. Just think what I could have done with a spreadsheet back then. I could have mapped out the houses that distributed Bit-O-Honey and avoided them forever.

So here I am at my desk, with the skeletal rubber duck, zombie statue, three sparkly skeletons, windup skeletons, vampire finger puppet, and Lego witch—all of which are everyday decorations, not just for October 31.

Happy Halloween to the rest of you, but as for me, I enjoy Halloween every day.

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