‘Buffy’ flashback: ‘Halloween Rain’ (1997) (Book review)

With the very first piece of “Buffy” spinoff fiction, “Halloween Rain” (November 1997), Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder do two things: 1) Demonstrate their love and knowledge of the characters, and 2) Raise a continuity debate that still hasn’t been settled to this day.

On this re-read of the first original “young adult” “Buffy” novel – which I accomplished in a few sittings, since it’s 161 pages – I liked “Halloween Rain” more than I thought I would. It’s shorter than the series’ “adult” offerings (the first of which, Golden and Holder’s “Child of the Hunt,” would come out in October 1998), but not shallower. While the issues Xander, Willow, Buffy and Giles deal with are the same as in the TV show, it’s fun to see them illuminated in G&H’s crisp prose, as it’s clear the authors themselves are engaged by Willow’s love for Xander, Xander’s crush on Buffy, and Buffy’s desire for a real life. They also could be president and treasurer of the We Hate Cordelia Club, as they have Queen C in her Season 1 phase of showing what Buffy might have become.

G&H, as would become their wont, presage a lot of concepts the show would get to later. The Pumpkin King, Samhain, is a threat for three days (Oct. 31-Nov. 2), a way to decompress the narrative, similar to how werewolves transform for three nights in “Buffy” lore in “Phases” (Season 2, episode 15). A student whom Buffy mistakenly saves from her boyfriend – who is necking her, not biting her – accuses Buffy of belonging in an asylum (page 5). We’d learn in “Normal Again” (6. 17) that Buffy was in a mental hospital between her Slayer origin story and Season 1.

Vampires suggest a truce with the Slayer, calling to mind the notion of Halloween being a slow holiday for Slaying, something that is confirmed in “Halloween” (2.6), which aired around the time this book came out. Two of the vamps are dressed for Halloween as cowboys, something reminiscent of “Bad Eggs” (2. 12). Buffy being infected by the Pumpkin King’s fear pheromones — which, admittedly, is a ripoff of The Scarecrow from “Batman” – calls to mind “Halloween” and “Helpless” (3. 12) as episodes where Buffy is magically weakened. The zombie outbreak in the final act is a precursor to “Dead Man’s Party” (3. 2), the first zombie episode.

The authors’ most original invention is the local crazy guy, disgraced former Sunnydale High teacher Mr. O’Neill, who has seen people rise from the ground for decades in the town. By being an exception to the rule, such a character adds verisimilitude to the idea that most residents don’t give much thought to Sunnydale’s high death rate.

While “Halloween Rain” doesn’t feature as much backstory as later Golden and Holder books, they do delve into Slayer/Watcher history. Giles reads a Watcher’s journal about 17th century Irish Slayer Erin Randall, whose exploits were notorious enough that Giles says to himself (p. 77): “I ought to have known it would be you. Who else could have faced Sumhain and lived?” With emphasis on how Sumhain has weakened with time – as humans’ worship of the “dead” winter months had lessened – the authors push the notion that, at this point in her career, Buffy is not up to snuff with great Slayers of the past. However, Erin Randall would not appear in another “Buffy” story.

G&H seem to be making a poke at Alyson Hannigan’s hair color when Willow dyes it red to be the Scully to Xander’s Mulder. (Buffy, by the way, goes as a pirate.) Willow cryptically tells Xander her hair has always been red. In reality, Hannigan’s hair is reddish brown, but it gets redder as the TV series goes forward, to the point where Spike often calls her “Red.”

OK, now on to the continuity debate. “Halloween Rain” is set during Season 1, under the theory that the season takes place over the course of a full school year. Today, it’s mostly accepted that Season 1 only covers the second semester, taking place roughly in real time in early 1997 – and that Buffy therefore did not attend school during the fall of 1996. But since Joss Whedon hasn’t made a statement on the issue, it’s not officially settled.

So were the authors stupid to set “Halloween Rain” on Halloween 1996? Not necessarily. At the time they wrote the book, they were armed with limited and contradictory information. The WB’s promo for the premiere episode says “Now, in 1997, it’s starting all over again.” But “Witch” (1. 3) has a banner that proclaims cheerleader tryouts for 1996, and throughout Season 1, there is no mention of Buffy having missed a semester of schooling, only that she was a troublemaker at Hemery. Then again, “Witch” takes place during basketball season, which suggests these tryouts are more likely for the second semester.

Interestingly, the chronology page on the “Buffy” Wiki posits a full-school-year Season 1, in which “Halloween Rain” slots in nicely.

This timeline, however, has serious problems. Ross Nolan, a reader of this blog, points out that Joyce calls Buffy a 16-year-old girl in “The Harvest” (1. 2). Since Buffy turns 17 in “Surprise” (2. 13) in January 1998 and her headstone in “The Gift” (5. 22) gives a 1981 birth year, the earliest Season 1 can start is January 1997, immediately after Buffy’s 16th birthday. And Buffy says she’s been “been slaying vampires for over a year” in “Witch.” This suggests a 1997 date for Season 1, since the title cards say “1996, Los Angeles” in the “Becoming, Part 1” (2. 21) flashbacks where Angel first sees Buffy, right before she’s about to be called as the Slayer at Hemery High.

Some might say the answer is even simpler, because Season 2’s “Halloween” portrays Buffy’s first Halloween in Sunnydale. A close look at the script reveals that’s not explicitly stated. Xander, Willow and Buffy chat about Halloween being a slow time for Slaying as per Giles’ information, but that doesn’t in and of itself contradict “Halloween Rain,” which also portrays Halloween as being slow up until the Pumpkin King’s visit — just as Ethan Rayne’s visit shatters the theory in Season 2.

While G&H weren’t totally off base for thinking Season 1 could have a Halloween story, the TV show’s later revelations about the timeline seem to render “Halloween Rain” apocryphal. Still, it’s a solid book, and it rightfully earned the authors many more “Buffy” writing assignments.

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