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.”
At least Blackwood’s “The Willows,” as well as Aickman’s typically enigmatic “The Hospice,” are reprinted in “The Weird,” which may be the most capacious collection of “strange and dark stories” ever to see print. As with the Penzler anthology, its pages are laid out in double columns on cheap pulp paper, but this off-putting format is redeemed by the startling material chosen by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. They have clearly thought hard and read widely to select not just classic stories, such as F. Marion Crawford’s “The Screaming Skull” and Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar,” but also work by writers not always associated with the uncanny tale. Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” Hagiwara Sakutaro’s “Cat Town,” Julio Cortazar’s “Axolotl” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “My Mother” mix with George R.R. Martin’s horrific “Sandkings,” Jerome Bixby’s classic science-fiction chiller “It’s a Good Life!” and James Tiptree Jr.’s viscerally upsetting “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats.”
Above all, the VanderMeers reserve at least half their book for living authors, choosing unsettling stories from M. John Harrison, Thomas Ligotti, Stephen King, Mark Samuels (the disturbing metafictional chiller “The White Hands”), China Mieville, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, Elizabeth Hand, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link, Laird Barron and Steve Duffy, among others. (But where are the comparably excellent Reggie Oliver, Zoran Zivkovic and Glen Hirshberg?) In their introduction, the editors also boldly suggest that “the finest weird tale of the 1960s” was a short novel by Michel Bernanos called “The Other Side of the Mountain,” which they include in its entirety, newly translated by Gio Clairval.
It is a powerful story, even a mystical one, in which connoisseurs will recognize elements of Poe’s “Arthur Gordon Pym,” Herbert Read’s “The Green Child” and various works of William Hope Hodgson. In its first half, a ship’s cabin boy describes a hellish voyage that culminates in starvation, cannibalism and a descent into a maelstrom. In the second half, the young narrator and his friend Toine, the cook, find themselves cast ashore on a land of animate vegetables and bizarre statues, where the ground resounds with an ominous heartbeat and the skies show unknown constellations. Where are the castaways? Will they survive, and if so, how?
Surprisingly, only two stories appear in both anthologies. One is Fritz Leiber’s “Smoke Ghost,” generally regarded as a major template for postwar urban horror. The other is by H.F. Arnold, about whom nothing much is known. However, the headnote in each volume stresses that “The Night Wire” was probably the most popular story to appear in “Weird Tales” during its golden age — and was a particular favorite of H.P. Lovecraft.
In essence, this tour de force is utterly simple. As his manager looks on, a strangely silent news-wire operator transcribes a series of fragmented reports from an unknown city. They describe a suffocating mist that emerges from the local cemetery. At first, the mist merely seems a nuisance, but then . . .
Readers who buy both “The Big Book of Ghost Stories” and “The Weird” will find that they have stored up treasure for many Halloweens to come. I hadn’t reread H.R. Wakefield’s “He Cometh and He Passeth By” since childhood, but now realize that its black magician is obviously modeled on the real-life Aleister Crowley. Moreover, I also now recognize that Wakefield’s story — included by Penzler — itself derives from M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes,” which is reprinted by the VanderMeers. Both remain classics, like virtually everything in these two huge anthologies, each slab-like volume being roughly the size and thickness of a small gravestone.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday.
THE BIG BOOK OF GHOST STORIES
Edited by Otto Penzler
Black Lizard. 833 pp. Paperback, $25
A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories
Edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Tor. 1,126 pp. Paperback, $29.99