Michael Dirda on horror and specialty presses

July 2

A.S. Byatt’s “The July Ghost” is one of her best stories, and everyone knows W.F. Harvey’s classic short-short “August Heat,” but, in general, we don’t immediately associate long, sunshiny days with tales of the supernatural. Yet think of campfire ghost stories and urban legends such as the Hook, as well as innumerable teen horror flicks. An occasional chill obviously makes summer’s fiendish temperatures more bearable.

These days, if you’re looking for literary shocks and shivers, you need to check out the specialty presses. That’s where the action is. What follows here is little more than a list of some significant recent titles, so do visit the easily findable homepages of these publishers to learn more about what they offer aficionados of the uncanny.

Night Shade Books’s “The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Six” (paperback, $15.99) is edited by the field’s leading anthologist, Ellen Datlow. As usual, Datlow delivers what she promises, “the best horror of the year,” whether it’s written by the famous (Neil Gaiman) or the should-be famous (Laird Barron and many others). The book opens with a 40-page “Summation: 2013,” in which Datlow discusses awards, novels, movies, comics, magazines and much more.

This month, Fedogan and Bremer is publishing “Ana Kai Tangata: Tales of the Outer the Other the Damned and the Doomed” ($30), by Scott Nicolay, a debut collection enthusiastically introduced by the aforementioned Laird Barron. Among Nikolay’s influences, says Barron, are the revered Angela Carter and Robert Aickman, my own two favorite writers of mid-20th-century dark fantasy. Another recent offering from Fedogan and Bremer is “Searchers After Horror: New Tales of the Weird and Fantastic” ($30), edited by noted Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi. An exceptionally handsome volume, it is best described in a blurb from T.E.D. Klein, the former editor of Twilight Zone magazine: Here “classic horror elements — sinister rural communities, lonely stretches of highway, shadowy catacombs, and old houses both decrepit and (maybe) deserted: doom haunted, or (just plain doomed) protagonists, apocalyptic artwork, demonic rites and even several nods to the [Cthulhu] Mythos . . . take on startling and unexpected new forms. . . . I henceforth intend to steer clear of crawdads and ice-fishing shacks.”

More than just a nod to the Cthulhu Mythos is “Lovecraft’s Monsters” (paperback, $16.95) from Tachyon Publications, edited by Ellen Datlow (who apparently never sleeps and is probably never seen in daylight). In this collection, she reprints some of the best Lovecraftian short fiction of the past 30 years, ranging from Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley’s “Black as the Pit, From Pole to Pole” (1977) to John Langan’s “Children of the Fang” (2014). Between are stories by such notable shockmeisters as Thomas Ligotti, Steve Rasnic Tem, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Joe R. Lansdale and Fred Chappell (not his classic “The Adder” but his almost novella-length “Remnants”).

The Monkey’s Other Paw” (paperback, $13.95), edited by Luis Ortiz for Nonstop Press, offers stories in which 13 contemporary writers re-imagine or pay tribute to the work of various classic horror authors. Don Webb’s “The Doom That Came to Devil’s Reef” opens quietly: “Among Lovecraft’s papers at Brown University was a large manila envelope containing . . .” and then reveals what may be the true origins of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Scott Edelman’s “A Most Extraordinary Man” neatly imagines a sequel to Saki’s most famous and witty shocker, “The Open Window.” Set against the loneliness of New York City, and in homage to Dylan Thomas’s “The Followers,” Paul Di Filippo’s “Ghostless” focuses on a spectral matchmaking service for ghosts and mortals.

Centipede Press is known for its sumptuous editions, such as the recent volume devoted to Carl Jacobi in its series “Masters of the Weird Tale.” But Centipede also publishes “Studies in the Horror Film” (the most recent title is “Tobe Hooper’s ‘Salem’s Lot’ ”) and has just launched the “Library of Weird Fiction.” The first four volumes — Edgar Allan Poe , H.P. Lovecraft , Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson ($50 each) — are edited by the redoubtable S.T. Joshi and feature the best supernatural stories and novels of these masters of the genre. The books are hefty (around 800 pages each), but pleasant to hold, and the type is easy to read. Highly recommended.

S.T. Joshi — he’s everywhere — also oversees “Studies in Supernatural Literature,” an academic series published by Rowman & Littlefield. If you find yourself growing seriously interested in horror and gothic fantasy, you will want to check out James Goho’s “Journeys into Darkness: Critical Essays on Gothic Horror,” as well as “Ramsey Campbell: Critical Essays on the Modern Master of Horror,” edited by Gary William Crawford; “Lovecraft and Influence: His Predecessors and Successors,” edited by Robert H. Waugh; and, coming in August, “Disorders of Magnitude: A Survey of Dark Fantasy,” by Jason V. Brock. These are pricey books — $75 to $100 — but some titles, such as “Lord Dunsany: A Comprehensive Bibliography,” edited by Joshi and Darrell Schweitzer, are worth saving up for.

More affordable, though, are the paperback reissues from Ramble House. Emphasizing the shudder-pulp tradition, Ramble House and its related imprints, Surinam Turtle Press and Dancing Tuatara Press, highlight such authors as Greye La Spina, Wyatt Blassingame, John Knox, Jack Mann and many, many others. Here one can find, for example, the legendary rarity “The Subjugated Beast” ($20), by R.R. Ryan, and the stories of Tod Robbins, one of which — “Spurs” — became the notorious film “Freaks.” And who would want to live another day without Arthur M. Scarm’s “The Werewolf vs. The Vampire Woman” ($18), regarded by many aficionados as the worst horror novel of all time?

Over the past year or two, Valancourt Books has been reprinting in trade paperback the novels of John Blackburn, arguably the best British writer of occult thrillers and horror stories during the 1950s and ’60s. Particularly noteworthy are “A Scent of New-Mown Hay” ($16.99) and “Children of the Night” ($14.99). Valancourt also reissues legendary works like Florence Marryat’s 1897 shocker, “The Blood of the Vampire” ($17.99), and modern semi-classics such as Stephen Gilbert’s “Ratman’s Notebooks” ($16.99), the basis for the cult film “Willard.”

The publications of the Swan River Press are handsome, beautifully made volumes, a bit larger than rack-size paperback, and altogether irresistible. “Here With the Shadows” ($40) collects 15 recent stories by a grandmaster of the macabre, Steve Rasnic Tem, while R.B. Russell’s “The Dark Return of Time” ($40) is a short thriller that opens in a shop selling second-hand books in Paris. What could be better? Incidentally, when not writing fiction, Russell is co-owner of Tartarus Press, which publishes classic supernatural fiction (Arthur Machen, Edith Wharton) and contemporary fantasy, most recently Nike Sulway’s “Rupetta” ($25), winner of this year’s James Tiptree Award.

Ever since Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo,” some of our best eerie fiction is set in Canada. That’s still true. Recent paperbacks by authors to our north include Simon Strantzas’s “Nightingale Songs” (Dark Regions, $17.95) and “Burnt Black Suns” (Hippocampus , $20); Rio Youers’s “Westlake Soul” (ChiZine, $15.95); Richard Gavin’s “At Fear’s Altar” (Hippocampus, $20); and Ian Rogers’s “Every House Is Haunted” (ChiZine, $15.95) and “SuperNoirtural Tales” (Burning Effigy, $15.95). It hardly needs pointing out that Canadians know everything about being chilled to the bone.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

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