To this day, my favorite kinds of horror stories are those aimed at a family-friendly audience. Films like Hocus Pocus and books like Coraline, Bunnicula, and Goosebumps. Stories that are scary without being traumatizing. Horrific, but in that safe kind of way that family-friendly horror usually is. And Joseph Fink’s The Halloween Moon slots in perfectly alongside those other stories. One part coming-of-age story, one part fantasy adventure, and one part family-friendly horror, The Halloween Moon is a delightfully spooky read from start to finish. Though occasionally hampered by the restraints of middle-grade novels, The Halloween Moon is sure to delight readers young and old alike.
Esther Gold loves Halloween more than anything else in the world. But this year, her parents have forbidden her from trick-or-treating because she’s “too old.” Esther, not one to let something so simple stop her from celebrating her favorite holiday, convinces her best friend, Agustín, to sneak out with her and go trick-or-treating. But as the pair wanders around their neighborhood, something feels off. Very few kids are trick-or-treating and most of the adults have gone to bed early. Instead, mysterious costumed children, with faces Esther can’t make out, wander the streets. And the moon – a rare Halloween moon – shines bright and unmoving in the sky. Because, much to Esther and Agustín’s horror, time itself has crawled to a stop. And it’s up to Esther, Agustín, their bully (Sasha), and Mr. Gabler (the only adult still awake) to get to the bottom of what’s going on before it’s too late.
Everything about The Halloween Moon works very well. Fans of Fink’s past work in Alice Isn’t Dead and the Night Vale series will immediately recognize his voice throughout this book. Tonally, The Halloween Moon may not quite be as dark as his other work, but it is every bit as creative and delightfully strange. There’s a central mystery that takes readers in and out of the real world, a cast of well-written and immediately relatable characters, and a whole host of thrilling Halloween references (like black cats at war with Halloween queens and costumed goons throwing razor-filled apples). Fink takes all of these elements and combines them into an absolute page-turner of a book. I wish more time had been spent on the supernatural elements. I mean, Fink creates such a spooky, magical, fully-formed world that it’s hard not to want to spend as much time as possible in it. But there’s still plenty here to delight anyone in search of a good spook.
What I like most, though, is the way Fink ties Esther’s coming-of-age story into the novel’s more fantasy-driven narrative. And sure, that combination is prevalent in middle-grade novels, but Fink executes it excellently here. Esther doesn’t want to grow up. She’s scared of high school and she’s scared of losing her childhood. But most of all, she’s scared of things changing. However, when faced with a neverending Halloween, where nothing ever changes, Esther just might see that’s not what she actually wants after all. Fink explores this arc with all of the awkwardness, tenderness, and nuance it deserves. And her character growth drives the plot just as much as all of the supernatural goings-on do.
Equally impressive are the ways Fink explores Esther’s relationships with Agustín and Sasha. Her complicated feelings toward Agustín often take center stage in very sweet ways. Are they friends, are they something more than friends? But even more compelling is the way Fink explores Esther’s relationship with her bully, Sasha, and the way that some who are bullied end up becoming bullies. Fink tackles some meaty ideas through these interactions, and they help keep the novel grounded even in its most supernatural moments. At times, Fink’s character work feels like it’s running against the restraints of middle-grade novels, unable to go quite as deep or complex as he might want to. But the character work is still quite nuanced and immensely captivating.
At the end of the day, The Halloween Moon is a fun, spooky read from start to finish. Fink’s gift for creating fully-formed worlds leaves me wanting a bit more from the supernatural elements. But the way he combines this very Halloween-y story with some nuanced character work more than makes up the difference. While definitely aimed at a younger audience, The Halloween Moon is sure to delight readers of all ages and is well worth a read.
4 out of 5 wands.