Thirteen for HalloweenPrint
Or, how one book critic thinks he can out-spook the Scholar
By Michael Dirda
October 28, 2015
Although The American Scholar’s 13 “spooktacular” titles are all unsettling works and well worth searching out, most are relatively modern books. Traditionalists might welcome a somewhat more classic list of chilling titles for Halloween and those dark November nights. To make up the list that follows I settled on the following arbitrary criteria: no living writers, only those who wrote in English, and just one representative book per author. This last stricture avoids the easy way out of simply naming a writer’s complete supernatural fiction. Not that such volumes are to be disdained, since you would obviously get more shivers from The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James than from the one title I’ve picked.
Of course, those with a limited amount of time or money might prefer a single-volume sampler. Among many notable anthologies of the uncanny, five are particularly outstanding: The Omnibus of Crime, edited by Dorothy L. Sayers (half the book is devoted to spooky stories); The Supernatural Omnibus, edited by Montague Summers; Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Phyllis Wise Wagner and Herbert Fraser; The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Richard Dalby; and The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert.
Let me finally suggest that readers drawn to supernatural fiction, old or new, should visit the websites of the many small presses that specialize in new editions of horror stories and weird tales: Tartarus Press, Centipede Press, Ramble House, Coachwhip, Hippocampus, Night Shade, Swan River Press, Subterranean, Sarob, Ash-Tree, Valancourt, and several others.
In rough chronological order, my 13 ghostly classics:
This volume contains five stories, all masterpieces, including the lesbian vampire classic, “Carmilla,” and “Green Tea,” the tale of a clergyman haunted by an invisible monkey. That sounds ludicrous, I know, but “Green Tea” is, in fact, one of the genre’s great patterning works. M. R. James—see below—revered Le Fanu and thought of him as his master.
Bierce is arguably the most important American writer of horror fiction—whether physical, psychological or supernatural—between Poe and Lovecraft. He’s best known for “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “The Damned Thing,” but “The Death of Halpin Frayser” is one of the most disorienting, and shocking, ghost stories I’ve ever read. Almost as good are “The Moonlit Road” and “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot.”
The pen name of Violet Paget, Lee was best known as an expert on Italy, where she spent much of her life. This volume contains “Amour Dure,” about a 19th-century scholar obsessed with the portrait of the Circe-like Renaissance beauty, Medea da Carpi. It is my own favorite ghost story. Enough said.
The television series True Detective has brought this collection renewed attention, though only its first four stories are actually weird or supernatural. Each of them features an unimaginably evil volume titled The King in Yellow. To read its pages is to risk madness—and worse. The imaginary realm of Carcosa, by the way, is borrowed from an Ambrose Bierce story.
For many James—M. R., not Henry—is the greatest master of the ghost story, period. This first of his four collections includes: “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” “Lost Hearts,” “The Mezzotint,” “The Ash-Tree,” “Number 13,” “Count Magnus,” “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.” Just typing those titles makes me want to sit down and reread them yet again. You’ll have to go on to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary to encounter what may be James’s most thrilling story, “Casting the Runes.”
This novel about an Egyptian cult’s pursuit of revenge appeared in 1897, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and was for a while far more popular. In it a bizarre creature of indeterminate sex possesses both hypnotic power and the ability to change itself into a giant beetle. The opening chapters are among the most frightening in literature. The book, moreover, is packed with disquieting subtexts involving race, gender, and class. Marsh is a neglected Victorian master of the macabre—as well as the grandfather of Robert Aickman (see below).
A specialist in the fin-de-siècle shocker, Machen launched his career with “The Great God Pan.” This early omnibus includes that story, as well as the two anthology favorites, “The Novel of the White Powder” and “The Novel of the Black Seal.” Despite the titles, these are just short stories extracted from an intricately structured book called The Three Impostors. The first concerns the awful fate of a young man who takes a medicine tainted with an unknown chemical; the other reveals the existence of an ancient race secluded in the Welsh hills. But Machen’s supreme masterpiece is unquestionably “The White People.” Our greatest scholar of the supernatural, E. F. Bleiler, calls this tale of a young girl’s encounter with a pagan realm “the finest single supernatural story of the century, perhaps in the literature.”
People sometimes forget that Wells’s scientific romances might just as easily be labeled horror fiction. That’s obviously true of the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, and even more so of his many stories. This collection includes the horrific “The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham”—about a particularly cruel way of achieving possible immortality—and that classic of revenge by magic, “Pollock and the Porroh Man,” among many others.
Besides her novels of New York society, Wharton wrote exceptionally powerful, usually heartbreaking ghost stories. “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” “Pomegranate Seed”—about mysterious letters received by a newly remarried widower—and “Afterward” are perhaps her best known. Robert Aickman brilliant summed up this last story: “The important ingredient in ‘Afterward’ is not the past offense but the truth, reaching far beyond ethics, that we can none of us identify what is crucial until it is too late.” Wharton is only the most outstanding among a stellar group of 19th- and early-20th-century American women who wrote superb supernatural short stories; they include Harriet Prescott Spofford, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Ellen Glasgow.
Blackwood’s two most famous stories—“The Willows” and “The Wendigo”—are among the dozen best in the genre, but they appear in separate collections. So I’ve chosen instead his adventures of the occult detective John Silence. Here one may read “Ancient Sorceries,” about a strange town of cats, or “Secret Worship,” about a devilish cult, or “The Nemesis of Fire,” about hidden mysteries surrounding a country house that always feels too warm. Blackwood, though, was at his most original in his intensely mystical novellas, especially The Man Whom the Trees Loved and A Descent into Egypt.
I wouldn’t argue with the Scholar’s “Spooktacular” selection of Lovecraft’s novel At the Mountains of Madness, but I’ve always been fond of this novella in part because its narrator is a student at Oberlin College—my alma mater—instead of Lovecraft’s usual Miskatonic University. No one who reads this chilling story ever forgets the distinctive “Innsmouth” look and what it portends. A masterpiece of misdirection.
The grandmaster of the locked-room mystery, Carr frequently created an atmosphere of the supernatural in his fiction, only to dispel it in the end. But in this one novel, he managed to sustain that feeling of horror and fear in a wholly unexpected and unrepeatable manner. In the first chapter, a book editor riding home on the train is casually reading a manuscript that contains some pictures, including one of a beautiful woman guillotined in the 19th century for murder and witchcraft. The chapter ends with the words: “He was looking at a photograph of his own wife.”
To my mind, Aickman is the greatest writer of “strange stories” of the second half of the 20th century. Precise and elegant, his fiction is utterly haunting yet also utterly enigmatic. One can sometimes hardly fathom what has actually happened in many of his stories, though there’s no doubt about their powerful eeriness. This is probably Aickman’s best single collection, including “The Cicerones,” “Into the Woods,” “The Unsettled Dust” and “The Swords.” If you respond to these stories, you’ll want to look for everything Robert Aickman ever wrote.
Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.