Michael Dirda on Unearthing Ghostly Tales of Today

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 21, 2008

"A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/Of sprites and goblins."

Shakespeare surely knew what he was talking about, for what could be better than reading wonderful stories, some sad, some ghostly, during these cold, dark nights? Throughout the world, traditional stories of marvelous adventure and tragic love have long been told at wintertime. In the 19th century, Dickens and others popularized the Christmas ghost story, often with a slightly humorous twist. In the middle of the 20th century, publishers urged classic mysteries for this time of year, most famously in the advertising slogan for Agatha Christie's annual whodunit: "A Christie for Christmas."

But where can you find such tales today? Much of the most original fantasy, mystery and horror is now published by small specialty presses. What follows is a list of just a few important independent publishers, highlighting some of their most notable recent titles. Note that the production values of these books generally equal or exceed those of New York trade houses, but the print runs are usually much smaller.

Ash-Tree Press (Ashcroft, B.C., Canada). The owners of this press -- Barbara and Christopher Roden -- are the leading purveyors in North America of classic supernatural fiction, both old and new. They named Ash-Tree after a story by M.R. James, who is to the ghostly tale what Arthur Conan Doyle is to the detective story. This year's publications include volumes devoted to the macabre tales of Henry S. Whitehead (many set in the West Indies), Gerald Kersh (author of the hideous and brilliant "Men Without Bones"), Fitz-James O'Brien ("The Diamond Lens") and the acclaimed contemporary writer Reggie Oliver (Masques of Satan). And don't overlook City of the Sea and Other Ghost Stories, by Jerome K. Jerome, best known for the comic masterpiece Three Men in a Boat. Ash-Tree also publishes the invaluable All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society.

Big Mouth Press (Easthampton, Mass.). This is the new children's imprint of Small Beer Press -- publishers of cutting-edge fantasy and science fiction -- and its first offering is Joan Aiken's The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories. Aiken is best known for the rumbustious Dido Twite chronicles, set in an alternate 19th-century Britain and an influence on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. For sheer charm it's hard to beat these wonderful, dead-pan comic tales about one family's adventures -- nearly always on a Monday -- with ghosts, witches, time travel, the Furies and every sort of magic.

Crippen and Landru (Norfolk, Va.). This publisher generally specializes in short-story collections by noted crime writers of the past and present, but one of its recent offerings is a volume of radio plays -- 13 to the Gallows -- by that Golden Age master of the locked-room mystery, John Dickson Carr (in collaboration with Val Gielgud). Another desirable volume, The Archer Files, edited by Tom Nolan, gathers together all the stories about Ross Macdonald's soft-boiled California private eye Lew Archer.

Dead Letter Press (New Kent, Va.). Bound for Evil, edited by Tom English, with illustrations by Allen Koszowski, is a hefty collection of stories about accursed and diabolical books. It includes celebrated chillers -- M.R. James's "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," Robert W. Chambers's "The Yellow Sign" -- but also fine work by many contemporary writers, such as Fred Chappell (that wonderful homage to Lovecraft, "The Adder"), Simon Strantzas ("Leather, Dark and Cold") and Barbara Roden ("Association Copy"). Dead Letter's most recent book is Engelbrecht Again!, by Rhys Hughes, a companion volume to the cult classic The Exploits of Engelbrecht (Savoy), Maurice Richardson's peculiar and funny stories about the eponymous "Dwarf Surrealist Boxer."

Mage Publishers (Washington, D.C.). Highly recommended from Mage is Vis & Ramin, by Fakhraddin Gorgani, translated from the Persian by Dick Davis. This little publisher focuses on Persian literature, classic and current, and often works with Davis. Some years back it brought out his version of the Shahnameh -- the great Persian epic -- and now follows with this great (and sexy) Persian romance, a variant of, and possible source for, the Tristan and Isolde story.

The New York Review of Books (New York). Under the editorship of the redoubtable Edwin Frank, NYRB Classics has been steadily rediscovering neglected authors and books, such as -- to mention only two of my favorites -- J.R. Ackerley's touching and comic Hindoo Holiday and G.B. Edwards's deeply moving novel about life on the island of Guernsey, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. This fall NYRB brought out My Fantoms, a selection of short works by the 19th-century romantic Théophile Gautier, chosen and translated by Richard Holmes. It includes a memoir of poet Gérard de Nerval, who kept a pet lobster, and Gautier's erotic horror classic "La morte amoureuse" (here called "The Priest") about a young man's double life -- by day a devout cleric but at night, in strangely vivid dreams, the lover of a ghostly enchantress.

Old Earth Books (Baltimore). Other Worlds, Better Lives: A Howard Waldrop Reader, Selected Long Fiction, 1989-2003 is a companion to Waldrop's selected short stories, Things Will Never Be the Same, a volume justly praised by a certain Washington Post reviewer of admirable perspicacity (me). Waldrop parodies and pastiches popular culture and literary tradition with seriously manic brilliance. See, in this volume, his novella-length retelling of the labors of Hercules in 1920s Mississippi, "A Dozen Tough Jobs."

PS Publishing (Hornsea, England). As one who can never resist a bookish mystery, especially one with supernatural elements, I was deeply grateful when a friend sent me a copy of The Last Book, by Zoran Zivkovic (translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic). Zivkovic is one of the most attractive new writers to enter fantasy recently, and he's been mightily prolific, with much of his work brought out by PS, including his fat collection Impossible Stories. In general, the erudite Zivkovic may be likened to a more playful Borges, touched with a bit of Calvino and Kafka.

Prime Books (Rockville, Md.). An imprint of Wildside Press, a publishing leviathan specializing in print-on-demand books and magazines in the field of weird fiction, this company publishes new work by contemporary writers, including Tim Lebbon, Holly Phillips and the versatile Paul Di Filippo. John Langan's unnerving stories in Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters -- about violated graves, antiquarian lore, a strange audiotape and a mysterious statue -- come with an admiring introduction by the award-winning novelist and critic Elizabeth Hand.

Tachyon Press (San Francisco). Focusing on science fiction and fantasy, Tachyon brings out a good many anthologies (e.g., The New Weird, edited by Jeff VanderMeer) but recently published two of the last books by the late Thomas M. Disch. The Word of God is a short novel, told from the viewpoint of God, who it seems is also Tom Disch; The Wall of America collects a number of what one might call comic and bitter fables. In the title story, a Homeland Security wall between Canada and the United States is turned into an art gallery by the National Endowment for the Arts. I've collected Disch ever since I met the multi-talented novelist-poet-critic-curmudgeon in 1980 at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston: As massive as a body-builder and covered with tattoos, that night he was wearing a bowling shirt. Disch was clearly a man of letters after my own heart.

Tartarus Press (North Yorkshire, England). Like the Garnier volumes in France, Tartarus books possess a uniform appearance, built around a distinctive yellowish paper stock for the dust jackets. While Tartarus specializes in classic fantasy and horror, generally by 20th-century English authors such as Arthur Machen, Walter de la Mare, Sarban and Robert Aickman, its most recent publications gather the unsettling short fiction of two eminent American writers: The Triumph of Night and Other Tales, by Edith Wharton, and The Snow-Image and Other Stories of the Supernatural, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Tartarus also publishes Wormwood, a scholarly journal devoted to supernatural literature.

Well, that makes 11 presses, and I should add another for a holiday dozen. But which one? Should it be Hippocampus, which specializes in H.P. Lovecraft scholarship and has just published D. Sidney-Fryer's The Atlantis Fragments, a collection of sensuously fantastic poetry? Or Subterranean Press, which brings out "best of" story collections by such powerful writers as Lucius Shepard and Michael Swanwick? But how can I overlook Night Shade Books, purveyors of Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsany, let alone Midnight House and Centipede/Millipede Press or even little Mercier Press, publishers of Brian J. Showers's Irish ghost stories, The Bleeding Horse? And then there's this hot new house called Ex Occidente, which is located in Bucharest but has just issued The Rite of Trebizond, the latest stories by Mark Valentine and John Howard about their "aesthetical occult detective," the Connoisseur.

Enough. Today marks the winter solstice -- the longest night of the year -- but there will be plenty of dark and wintry evenings ahead. Be prepared. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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