Come late October, the season of mellow fruitfulness is over and, as the days grow short, more and more we hurry home from work and school before the light fades. After dusk, when scudding clouds hide the stars and leafless tree branches twist and shiver in the night wind, nothing seems quite as familiar as it did on those hot summer evenings in July. By All Hallows Eve, only darkness surrounds us.
Which is just as it should be. At Halloween we all want to believe in spirits, ghouls and demons, if only because something in us longs to feel again those cozy shivers when we first heard classic ghost stories recited aloud, or were convinced that the dilapidated house down the block was haunted, or daringly sneaked into the latest scary movie — whether Tod Browning’s “Dracula” or George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” — at the downtown theater.
For sensible readers, the period between Halloween and Christmas obviously calls for ghost stories and tales of the uncanny. There are dozens of excellent collections out there, starting with such old standbys as Herbert Wise and Phyllis Fraser Cerf Wagner’s “Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural,” Montague Summers’s “The Supernatural Omnibus,” Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert’s “Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories” and the several anthologies of August Derleth, in particular “Sleep No More.” But this year two mammoth volumes of frightfulness are “offered for your consideration,” as Rod Serling used to say at the beginning of “The Twilight Zone.”
Otto Penzler’s “The Big Book of Ghost Stories” largely focuses on classic tales. No one should go through life (let alone death) without experiencing W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” Perceval Landon’s “Thurnley Abbey,” Ambrose Bierce’s “The Moonlit Road” and M.R. James’s “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad.” But Penzler also includes many stories that should be equally well known. This year, for instance, I read for the first time Ellen Glasgow’s “The Shadowy Third,” a wonderfully ambiguous tale of a nurse hired by a charismatic doctor to care for his apparently demented wife. Yet Mrs. Maradick is strangely afraid of her handsome husband, and there is something odd about her silent young daughter. Glasgow’s narrative is deeply haunting, in more ways than one.
Penzler stresses that he has “tried to remain true to the notion that ghosts are spirits or specters of the dead. Some stories that frequently have appeared in other ghost story anthologies have nothing at all to do with ghosts. They may be trolls, or evil plants, vile fungi, monsters, or other creatures of that ilk. Rightly or not, I have attempted to be a bit of a narrow-minded purist about it all.” This means that there is nothing here by Arthur Machen, who specialized in ancient and malignant races lurking in the Welsh hills, while Algernon Blackwood is represented by “The Woman’s Ghost Story” instead of his masterpiece, “The Willows.”
More seriously, I was surprised that Penzler failed to include any work by Oliver Onions (whose “The Beckoning Fair One” has frequently been judged the greatest ghost story of all time) or by such highly regarded masters as Walter de la Mare, L.P. Hartley, Russell Kirk and Robert Aickman. Still, it would be churlish to grouse too much, given the devil’s plenty on offer in “The Big Book of Ghost Stories.”