The trick is too often played upon us--the treat just out of reach. Tantalus may well be the patron saint of booksellers because another major holiday week is passing us by, and what do we have to show for it? Some Halloween card sales, drastically reduced prices on our amazing children's book and toy displays, and the annual three-copy sales spike for Washington Irving.
Yet what holiday is more appropriate for a national celebration honoring (and capitalizing on) the endless parade of dead celebrities who still pay a significant portion of our wages? Shouldn't this week be all about storytelling and bookselling, since ghosts account for so much of our product line?
Halloween could be a bookseller's dream, but too often it seems like a retail nightmare. Where are the festivals and book fairs that might turn Halloween into a bookishly frenzied Week of the Dead? Why aren't we having fun?
If you asked your customers to name their favorite literary ghost story, how many would say A Christmas Carol?
Sorry, wrong holiday, and a missed opportunity.
Bookstores do not gear up for Halloween the way they do for Black Friday or Christmas season. That's a shame. This would seem to be "our" holiday more than anyone else's. Publishing houses may not be haunted houses, as a rule, but storytelling has a long and distinguished spectral pedigree--Dickens, Hawthorne, Poe; Sleepy Hollow, Transylvania, Birnam Wood.
Horror resides everywhere. Recently Abebooks.com announced that Big Brother, from George Orwell's 1984, was chosen the scariest character in literature in a poll of website visitors, edging out a distinguished list that included Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis.
One of my Halloween traditions is to watch Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining. As a writer, I love the scene in which a seriously spooked Shelley Duvall, baseball bat gripped firmly as if ready to knock her husband's head out of the park, discovers that the thick manuscript he has been maniacally typing is in fact a single sentence, repeated hundreds of times on page after page:
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Forgiving the grammatical error, I can't resist thinking how appropriate this image is to what we do for a living. As poor Shelley riffles through the pages, Jack Nicholson creeps into camera range behind her, and utters the only line an author could under the circumstances:
"How do you like it?"
That is a scream, and I do mean in a humorous and not horrific context.
How do you like it?
I like it just fine, and that is precisely why we may be missing a unique opportunity to reinvent Halloween as a book-oriented holiday. We have so much to work with; it would be like taking candy corn from a baby.
Just for the fun of it.
In Christopher Morley's classic novel The Haunted Bookshop--which should be required reading for any bookseller--we are informed that the Parnasus at Home bookstore features a "large placard in a frame," which reads:
This shop is haunted by the ghosts
Of all great literature, in hosts
We are all haunted, in the best possible way, by the books we've read and the authors who've possessed us. We are mediums by profession, channeling the eloquently dead for our customers. As the Parnassus bookshop's placard concludes:
We have what you want, though you may not know you want it.
Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing.
Let us prescribe for you.
We need to walk on the wild retail side of Halloween bookselling. Morley describes it best:
Living in a bookshop is like living in a warehouse of explosives. Those shelves are ranked with the most furious combustibles in the world--the brains of men. I can spend a rainy afternoon reading, and my mind works itself up to such a passion and anxiety over mortal problems as almost unmans me. It is terribly nerve-racking. Surround a man with Carlyle, Emerson, Thoreau, Chesterton, Shaw, Nietzsche, and George Ade--would you wonder at his getting excited? What would happen to a cat if she had to live in a room tapestried with catnip? She would go crazy!Crazy is what we need. Did anyone hold a ghost story slam this year? How can Halloween be anything but our holiday? After all, we have the ghosts.