End of Summer by J. Tonzelli is a book that tries really hard. It wormed into all my comfortable places and I wanted to like it. The thirteen short stories it contains are centered on Halloween, which is a soft spot for most of us in the scare industry. Cool weather, changing leaves jumping off trees, longer nights, kids in costumes: all these things warm our jagged little hearts. This is my favorite time of year and I read End of Summer hoping it would evoke seasonal feelings in me.
The introduction was promising. Tonzelli tries to explain his own love of Halloween and falls a bit short, though in an admirable way. For those of us who love this holiday, the reasons are often ineffable. There are some concrete things, of course, but for the most part, we just fucking adore Halloween. It speaks to something inside and, as clichéd as it is, if it requires explanation, you’re probably not going to get it. Tonzelli captures this perfectly in his intro and I read on optimistically.
Turns out that was my favorite part. Everything after that felt like it was a rehash of an existing story, idea, or theme. Nothing felt original and many of the stories were the same tired old critters we drag out and pet on Halloween.
The opener, “Stingy Jack,” features a typical smooth-talking, tantrum-throwing Devil trying rather lamely to corral the soul of a drunk. Despite being the Devil, he seems at a loss to outsmart the drunk, tripping over a couple of tricks older than apples. Will he eventually win out? Probably. We’ve read these things before.
The final offering, “Dumb Supper,” is a generic Halloween yarn. It’s the sort of thing that appears in every collection of dark tales and would be right at home on the YA shelf. It takes place in the kitchen where a wife is reluctantly hosting her dead husband’s grumpy, asshole spirit for dinner. He can only come once a year, they have to be quiet and sneaky, he’s obviously escaped some dark force for the moment…you know the drill.
The eleven stories between these two are equally exhausted and worked over. It’s material that needs a fresh angle or wide streak of novelty to be interesting again but we don’t get that. Instead, it’s just business as usual. We’ve got our regular-ass, plain old haunted house. There’s a reluctantly evil couple sacrificing their young niece to ensure a bountiful crop. Let’s see, a man who killed his hated wife but is tortured by ghostly visions of her. Oh, and there’s the guy that watched his best childhood chum burn to death on Halloween. He didn’t set the kid on fire himself but he was sort of indirectly responsible and he’s been plagued by guilt ever since. That guy gets revisited by his friend’s smoky spirit every year on Halloween at exactly 12:37am.
While it seems obvious that Tonzelli wants to pay affectionate tribute to the motifs of Halloween that we all love, he seems unconcerned with breathing any fresh life into them. They remain as they were: antiquated; trite; worn at the seams; ready for retirement. Tonzelli turns a few innovative phrases occasionally to spice things up but these are few and far between.
End of Summer certainly isn’t the worst thing you could read this month. If you like curling up by the fire with a warm glass of cider, listening to your spooky sounds CD, and relaxing into comforting familiarity, this is your book. However, if you’re looking for something outside the box, go ahead and skip this one.