Brace up, my friends! Today’s review will be a long one, because today’s book, although small in terms of length, contains vast concepts. Concepts which a mere critic probably cannot adequately address. But, I feel compelled to try anyway. Really, the best decision you could make would be to get this book now and read it before Halloween. Then, come back and read this review if you want. Or better yet, write your own! This is one of those books that I suspect will inspire strong feelings in readers. Lydia Schoch, to whom I owe thanks for bringing this book to my attention, already wrote one yesterday, and I encourage you to read it.
So, what is this book about? Well, as you likely guessed, it’s about a 25 year-old woman named Samantha, born in Ohio and now living in New York City, which she imagined would be glamorous, but is finding her life lacking in purpose and direction. She is unhappy, but she cannot pinpoint exactly why.
Among other things, this book is about millennial angst. The millennials are the generation born between approximately 1981-1996, which makes Samantha one of the last ones.
If you are a millennial, as I am, you probably know what I mean by “millennial angst.” If you’re not, you might be skeptical of this whole phenomenon. And I can’t blame you. It is possible every generation experiences these growing pains, and imagines themselves to be unique when in reality they’re just like their parents, and their grandparents, and so on. When Don McLean sang of “A generation Lost in Space / With no time left to start again,” he wasn’t singing about millennials. But he might as well have been.
So, maybe it’s unfair to call it “millennial angst.” But whatever you call it, this book captures it.
Now, possibly, you are getting nervous. You might be asking yourself, “Is this book part of that sub-genre of literary fiction known as ‘Spoiled People Who Are Unhappy In Vague and Complicated Ways?'” This is a very popular sub-genre among pretentious literary critics and scholars. I hold F. Scott Fitzgerald responsible for this, as his beautifully-written but soulless novel The Great Gatsby taught generations of writers that this is what fiction is supposed to be like.
Gatsby is about unhappy people in New York. Samantha, 25, on October 31 is also about unhappy people in New York. Gatsby is full of symbolism. Perhaps someday the literary critics will get their hands on Samantha, 25, and then they’ll say it’s full of symbolism, too. And perhaps it is, but here at Ruined Chapel we rarely employ such modes of analysis.
Anyway, let me actually answer the question: is this one of those books? No, it isn’t. You might think it is, since it shares common elements, but no. This book is something very different. It is much stranger and much more powerful than that.
Samantha dreams of rediscovering the magic of Halloweens of her childhood. Somehow it slipped away, without her even being aware of it, and now it’s gone and the world is drab and humdrum. This book, then, is not in the tradition of Gatsby, but of Something Wicked This Way Comes and even of Lovecraft’s more esoteric works. I particularly thought of the opening of his never-completed novel Azathoth:
When age fell upon the world, and wonder went out of the minds of men; when grey cities reared to smoky skies tall towers grim and ugly, in whose shadow none might dream of the sun or of Spring’s flowering meads; when learning stripped earth of her mantle of beauty, and poets sang no more save of twisted phantoms seen with bleared and inward looking eyes; when these things had come to pass, and childish hopes had gone away forever, there was a man who traveled out of life on a quest into spaces whither the world’s dreams had fled.
And here, I have written myself into a corner and given lie to my own thesis. Namely, by showing that H.P. Lovecraft, who was about as antithetical to the values of my generation as it is possible to be, nevertheless was feeling some angst of his own.
It is entirely possible that writers in every generation are like this. It may be just some weird mutation that keeps cropping up. We can’t rule out this possibility.
Why is it, do you suppose, that these mystical, irrational ideas persist? What spirit is it that moves Samantha to wish for “spooktacular Halloween adventure?” Is it just the whims of idle youth? Or is it… something else?
We’ll return to this question. But in the meantime, we’ve got to talk about Halloween itself.
What, exactly, is Halloween about? For comparison, think about what every other holiday is about. Every Western holiday I can think of can be traced to something specific, and commemorates a particular thing, whether it’s an actual event, a person, a myth, a miracle, or something of the sort.
Halloween… doesn’t. At least, nothing specific. It’s the night before the Day of the Dead, which, under various names, is the day of remembrance of departed ancestors. But even that’s not Halloween.
Halloween itself is about the mystery of what lurks in the darkness. It’s celebrated when it is because the days are getting shorter, and the sun is sinking lower, and frankly, this was just a rough time of year if you were a pagan farmer. Your thoughts probably weren’t of a cheerful sort during this time.
Of all holidays, Halloween is the most closely associated with the mysterious and the unknown. And, I would contend, it is the holiday that most closely binds us to a darker, more primitive age, when, as HPL might say, “wonder was still in the minds of men.” (And women, too. Like I said, ol’ Howard wasn’t really up to speed with our modern values.)
And now, we’re in a position to evaluate what Samantha wants, and why Halloween is the catalyst for making her want it. As Samantha says at the climax of the book:
“I spent an awful lot of the past two decades and change just kind of following the rules, keep your head down, jump through hoops, impress the teacher, check every box and go to a good school and check the boxes there and now, whoops, that’s all crap because you do that and you work an essential starvation-wage job selling five different kinds of kombucha and no one gives a shit and nothing matters and soon enough society collapses and the best that the people in charge can tell you is keep following the rules.”
I understand if you’re agnostic about the concept of millennial angst. Yet, if it exists at all, this is surely as perfect a summary of it as was ever put to the page.
And that is why Samantha finds herself standing with a bunch of witches around a fire on Halloween night. Because she is tired of following the rules and jumping through the hoops.
It’s a night when rules are broken, and the world seems a little less rote and a little more mysterious.
Friends, the world is not a spreadsheet. It can’t be neatly and efficiently organized, at least not without resorting to methods ripped from dystopian novels. There must always be a sense of indescribable magic in life, or else it’s not really life at all.
Samantha, 25, on October 31 is a great book. There’s no rubric I can use to articulate why, no arithmetic formula I can point to and say, “Ah, there! That is what makes it great!” Only it is, because it has the power to say things I always thought, but never could articulate, even to myself.
Of course, you might disagree. Maybe you’ll read it, and look at me the way I look at people who tell me Gatsby is the Great American Novel. Every book really is like the cave on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back: What’s in it? “Only what you take with you.”
Therefore, I advise you to bring with you the spirit of Halloween; the feeling of curiosity and wonder that all of us keep somewhere in ourselves, and let yourself get lost in the magic of this weird and wonderful holiday.