In the evolution of the horror story, the ghostly subtlety of Le Fanu and the unrelieved ghastliness of Poe represent two traditions, two strategies for keeping the reader awake at night. The writer can either build his effects slowly and comulatively or he can strike the note of horror at once and attempt to sustain it. During the current surge of the genre's popularity, the latter approach has been gaining ground. As if to confirm this, Wolf's Complete Book of Terror, the largest anthology of scary stories to appear in over 30 years, is one of the most resolutely gruesome, unpleasant collections ever published.
Leonard Wolf, author of The Annotated Dracula, has chosen exceptionally violent and obsessive stories even from writers normally associated with a more civilized, understated aesthetic. Readers who usually find writers such as H. G. Wells and Anthony Boucher too tame and attenuated may be in for some nasty surprises when they read the works offered here. Not surprisingly, Wolf's selection from the oeuvre of J. S. Le Fanu is "Carmilla," the remarkably explicit story of a lesbian vampire (cribbed by Bram Stoker for several scenes in Dracula) - easily that author's most grisly tale. Wolf even goes so far as to commit the editorial sin of deleting the chillingly poetic ending of "Carmilla" - in which the narrator reveals that she is far from free of the vampire's spell - so that the tale will end with a violent staking scene.
The problem with Wolf's Complete Book of Terror is that Wolf goes so far in the direction of excruciating explicitness that he ultimately confuses terror with sadism. In his introduction, he writes that "Murder and madness, rape and revulsion, bestiality and power are the stuff of which the genre is made." One could just as easily argue, as several ghostly writers have, that explicit revulsion and betstiality are at odds with the sense of awe and mystery which forms the real "basic stuff" of the genre. But Wolf, true to his credo, gives us a preponderance of stories where, as he puts it, "we find imagined for us the brutal or nasty ways in which people torment each other." A selection form the Marquis de Sade's Justice - a sustained description of sexual humiliation and torture - sets the theme and tone for this collection.
The bias against genuinely ghostly stories is most evident in Wolf's choice of contemporary tales. He does not include a single story by Ramsey Campbell, Robert Aickman or Russell Kirk - probably the greatest living writers in the field and certainly the most adept at combining traditional techniques with modern settings. Instead, Wolf reprints a number of stories which reflect the current fetish for pornographic violence and cruelty. Some of these, such as a mutation sequence from Jerzy Kosinski's Steps, are hideously effective. Others, such as Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," are simply hideous: "AM [a berserk computer] said it with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball. AM said it with the bubbling thickness of my lungs filling with phlegm, drowning me from within. AM said it with the shriek of babies being ground beneath blue-hot rollers. AM said it with the taste of maggoty pork." This is disgust, not "terror," and it is depressing to see editors losing sight of the distinction.
There is also a problem with some of the classics selected from this collection. Stories such as Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," de Maupassant's "The Horla," Saki's "Sredni Vashtar," Shirly Jackson's "The Lottery," and (most irritating of all) W. W. Jacobs, "The Monkey's Paw" are not only available elsewhere but have been endlessly recycled in past anthologies. On the other hand, some of the most skillful and undeservedly obscure practitioners of this art - L. P. Hartley, Walter de la Mare, H. R. Wakefield - are unrepresented.
One suspects then that this is not Wolf's "complete" book of terror so much as Wolf's complete book shelf. Still, there are enough well-written tales in this huge book - by Kipling, E. F. Benson, Roald Dahl, and others - to hook the uninitated reader onto this strangely seductive literature. Those who become addicted to scary stories through Wolf and develop a need to be chilled by more consistently refined horrors should turn to the slightly dated but still unrivalled Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Phyllis Fraser and Herbert Wise, now happily back in print.
An appetite for more stories by specific writers can be appeased by looking for the splendid editions of Le Fanu, M. R. James and others published by Dover and Arkham House (the latter being the original publishers in cloth of H.P. Lovecraft). Edited by E. F. Bleiler, the most deft and distinguished scholar of ghostly fiction, the Dover books are especially worth purchasing.
This field has been with us for centuries and has engaged the very best writers: there is no need to be stuck with what Oliver Onions once called "the groans and clankings of the grosser spook." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, from the book