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Ghost Stories

The season of mellow fruitfulness is also fright time.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page BW15

Halloween opens what many readers look forward to all year: the season of the classic ghost story. Between now and Twelfth Night (January 6), those who love the work of Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James, Vernon Lee and E.F. Benson, will be positively yearning for chilly, gloomy evenings, when the wind howls and dark clouds scud across the restless sky. We imagine comfortable easy chairs, a log fire, the glass of brandy or cup of tea near at hand. In our daydream we sip our warming drink, then open some worn volume to a favorite tale, perhaps "Schalken the Painter" or "A Warning to the Curious" or "Amour Dure" or "Mrs. Amworth." Settling back, the soft quilt drawn across our laps, we sigh with contentment.

Of course, everyone recognizes how hoarily conventional and clichéd such coziness really is. Most of us are lucky if we find 15 minutes to read during our evening commute on the crowded subway. Yet Victorian and Edwardian tales of the supernatural call forth a strangely powerful desire to make ourselves utterly open to the spell of sheer storytelling. "Can such things be?" wrote Ambrose Bierce. And we moderns, rational and skeptical, normally answer: Of course not, perhaps adding with sham self-confidence, We ain't afraid of no ghosts. But to work their magic best, the old tales demand complicity between the narrator and reader, that we listen to the voice on the page and submit, as much as possible, to that "suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith." And so we imagine those snug armchairs and blazing hearths.

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Many spook stories and strange tales are easy enough to find in thick anthologies like Wise and Fraser's Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. But in recent years several small presses have been reissuing single-author collections of the established, the forgotten and the modern masters of the quietly scary. Three of the best sources for these books are Ash-Tree Press (www.ash-tree.bc.ca/ashtreecurrent.html), Night Shade Books (www.nightshadebooks.com) and Tartarus Press (www.tartaruspress. com). Barbara and Christopher Roden, who operate Ash-Tree, also oversee the Ghost Story Society and its journal, All Hallows. Through the auspices of Tartarus, critic Mark Valentine has recently inaugurated Wormwood, a handsome magazine subtitled "Literature of the fantastic, supernatural and decadent." Now on its third number, Wormwood offers essays about noted authors in the genre (Oliver Onions, Mervyn Peake), articles on its typical themes (e.g., decadence) and mini-reviews of neglected and hard-to-find books. A few more traditional publishers also regularly reissue forgotten works of fantasy, in particular the presses at the University of Nebraska and Wesleyan.

Of all these, though, the most active is Ash-Tree Press. During the past decade and more it has reissued the work of virtually all the major figures in the history of the English ghost story and brought out new books by contemporary authors who continue the classic tradition (e.g., Steve Duffy). Some of the press's highlights include all of E.F. Benson's supernatural stories (in five volumes, one still to come); A Pleasing Terror, which gathers M.R. James short fiction, his novel The Five Jars and his commentary on the art of the ghostly tale; and several volumes devoted to the disturbing visions of A.M. Burrage and H. Russell Wakefield. Ash-Tree has also been diligent in searching out less well known writers, so that one can finally read the work of Julian Hawthorne (Nathaniel's son), gathered in The Rose of Death and Other Mysterious Delusions, or the very adept chillers of classic children's author E. Nesbit (In the Dark), or well-edited collections of Marjorie Bowen, Thomas Burke, Sarah Orne Jewett, Arthur Conan Doyle and Amelia B. Edwards, among many others. Most recently, the press has published a handsome cloth edition of John Meade Falkner's The Nebuly Coat which, though not technically supernatural, is nonetheless one of the most spooky and mysterious late Victorian novels (even if it first appeared in 1903).

One author that Ash-Tree hasn't published, though, is Arthur Machen and anyone with the least interest in supernatural fiction will want to acquire his Tales of Horror and the Supernatural (Tartarus, $65). This substantial omnibus reprints all of Machen's best-known stories, including such immortal chillers as "The White People," "The Great God Pan" and "The Novel of the White Powder."

At the climax of "The Novel of the Black Seal," the governess, Miss Lally, reads Prof. Gregg's report on his troubling researches, and these summarize Machen's basic "take" on the supernatural:

"I became convinced," writes Prof. Gregg, "that much of the folklore of the world is but an exaggerated account of events that really happened, and I was especially drawn to consider the stories of the fairies, the good folk of the Celtic races." Gregg infers "that the purely supernatural element in these traditions was to be accounted for on the hypothesis that a race which had fallen out of the grand march of evolution might have retained, as a survival, certain powers which would be to us wholly miraculous." In due course, the scientist discovers this lost race, with results that are best not revealed here.

Many ghost stories are in fact displaced reflections on forbidden topics: the persistence into modern times of pagan rituals or long-suppressed evil; the notion of a spiritual world beyond our ken (reincarnation, piercing the Veil, parapsychology); and, most powerful, the very real and occasionally demonic power of sex. In "The Great God Pan," for instance, Machen explores the voracious and threatening sexuality of the central character, Helen Vaughan. By contrast, in another of his stories he offers a classic representation of a theme also treated in Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" and H.P. Lovecraft's "Cool Air":

"I heard a noise as of feet shuffling slowly and awkwardly, and a choking, gurgling sound, as if someone was struggling to find utterance, and then the noise of a voice, broken and stifled, and words that I could scarcely understand.

" 'There is nothing here,' the voice said, 'Pray do not disturb me. I am not very well today.' "

Although Tales of Horror and the Supernatural is an invaluable collection, it does have one small drawback. Both the stories of the Black Seal and the White Powder are actually extracted from a book called The Three Impostors (1895). In the context of that volume -- modeled after Stevenson's New Arabian Nights -- they assume quite a different character. They become, in fact, not merely frightening but also pieces of an elaborate puzzle, the bait in an ingenious narrative trap.

Most tales of the supernatural try, however factitiously, to suggest that they are true, that the awful events that gradually unfold actually took place. In the Munchausen-like tall tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens, related over large whiskies at the Billiards Club, Lord Dunsany deftly plays with this convention: Our narrator has been repeatedly told that Jorkens is a liar -- and yet he gradually comes to believe in the old man's wistful reminiscences of mermaids and unicorns, African gods and magical amulets, trees that talk and voyages to Mars. Night-Shade has so far brought out two volumes (of three) in The Collected Jorkens, edited by S.T. Joshi ($35 each), and if you open to the first story of volume two, "Jorkens' Revenge," you will read these, to me, irresistible sentences:

"Again winter had come to London, and the clock said a quarter past three and night lay over the Billiards Club. At any rate the sun had set behind houses, and a long arm of fog had come reaching down the street and lights were lit in windows; and our own large window was just being hid with its curtains, and cheery lights were shining. Jorkens was there, among nearly a dozen of us; and, lunch over and the fire burning well, it was preeminently the occasion for a story."

The second issue of Wormwood, from last spring, contains an essay by Jeff Gardiner on Francis Stevens (the pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows, 1883-1948), subtitled "The Godmother of Modern Fantasy." With appropriate timing, Gary Hoppenstand has just brought out Stevens's The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (Univ. of Nebraska; paperback $19.95). In his long introduction he shows us a woman who produced tales of lost worlds and proto science fiction, as well as romantic suspense and dark fantasy. Most of this work appeared during the teens in various pulp magazines like All-Story and Argosy. Upon Hoppenstand's enthusiastic recommendation, I tried "Serapion" -- he calls it "her best tale" and her most "sophisticated," then likens it to Le Fanu's "Green Tea."

In fact, Stevens's novella more accurately calls to mind the greatest 19th-century novel of the supernatural, James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. In both, a young man is slowly led into evil by a sinister companion, a diabolical secret sharer. Stevens's modern story starts out in true pulp fashion -- an enigmatic woman behind a thick veil, an invitation to a séance, the release into our world of an evil Fifth Presence. But by story's end Clayton Barbour has betrayed his friends, allowed an innocent man to die for a murder he committed, perhaps even facilitated the death of his sweetheart. "Serapion" shows us an evil that persuades its victim that he is actually doing the best for everyone. In its final pages, as in Alfred Bester's sf classic "Fondly Fahrenheit," one isn't even quite sure who is telling the story -- the possessor or the possessed.

Stevens's prose is undistinguished and sometimes melodramatic, yet "Serapion" is certainly a powerful story of moral weakness. I plan to read more of her work.

Many years ago I asked the conservative thinker Russell Kirk to review for Book World, and so we chatted on the phone for a few minutes. At the time I vaguely knew that Kirk had written fiction, but I now have no hesitation in agreeing with critic John Pelan that he is the greatest American author of ghostly tales in the classic style, at least of the post-World War II era. Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales, edited by Vigen Guroian (Eerdmans, $25), reprints a goodly selection of Kirk's short fiction, but many readers will want the complete stories collected by John Pelan in two volumes: Off the Sand Road and What Shadows We Pursue (Ash-Tree, $45). Certainly Kirk deserves a wide readership, for he can be both terrifying and very moving.

For instance, books and book collecting have long provided inspiration for spooky plots, but the story "What Shadows We Pursue" shows us what can happen if we come to care more for our libraries than for the people around us. In "There's a Long, Long Road A-Winding," hobo Frank Sarsfield discovers a deserted house during a snowstorm. There, alone, he confronts his peculiar destiny, as he performs a "signal Act of contrition." It's not often that I cry at the end of a ghost story.

Both Pelan and Guroian emphasize that Kirk relates his tales from a Christian perspective -- a belief in Hell, divine providence, the spiritual nature of man. This is true but might suggest that they are a bit saccharine. Not at all. Kirk has a tremendous flair for narrative and a clear, plain style, while his principles imbue his tales with a sometimes Dostoevskyan power. I've only just started reading Russell Kirk, but then the season for ghost stories is only just beginning, and I can look forward to enjoying, among others, "The Surly Sullen Bell," "An Encounter at Mortstone Road" and "Watches at the Strait Gate." I can hardly wait for the next gloomy, storm-wracked evening. •

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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