"I HAVE ALWAYS felt that any party would be the
better for a ghost story."
So says Robertson Davies in a genial introduction to High Spirits (Viking, $15.95; Penguin paperback, $5.95), a gathering of his fanciful ghostly tales. Each of the 18 stories was first read aloud as part of the Christmas entertainment at Massey College in the University of Toronto, where Davies was Master. These ghost stories are part of a long and noble tradition. British magazines of the 19th century regularly presented a ghost story at Christmas, and the ghost story in an academic setting is almost a subgenre in itself. And if Davies uses the form for comic effect, these stories are still comfortably within the bounds of the mainstream of Gothic literature.
Many of Davies' ghosts are figures from the university's past--and, in one case, from its future--and the tales poke fun at them in a pleasant sort of way. Others are monumental figures in Canadian and British history, including a number of crowned heads that rest no easier in the spirit world than they did in life, and still others are such poor creatures as the hapless graduate student who became "The Ghost Who Vanished by Degrees." There are also the dreaded "Ugly Spectre of Sexism," and the horrible "Cat That Went to Trinity." They are all, as Davies says himself, "party-ghosts, emanating from high spirits," and the reader's own spirits will be happily elevated by these wonderful and graceful tales from the popular Canadian author.
It is a rule of thumb among writers in the field that horror works best at short lengths, and nowhere is the tradition more alive, and thriving, than in the short stories of such current leading practitioners as Dennis Etchison, Karl Edward Wagner, Charles L. Grant, and British author Ramsey Campbell.
Dennis Etchison's The Dark Country (Scream/ Press, Box 8531, Santa Cruz, Calif. 95061, $15, plus $1.50 postage) was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. The title story won an award last year, and another story here, "Deathtracks," is a current nominee. Etchison's stories often deal with society's outsiders, those who suffer most visibly from loneliness. In "Deathtracks," a television ratings interviewer visits the home of a couple who spend all their time listening to the recorded laughtracks of old television shows, hoping thereby to reach somehow, to understand, a world of the past in which their son was the last American boy to die in Vietnam. In "The Pitch," a department store salesman of kitchen gizmos calmly, very calmly, goes about his quiet business of taking terrible revenge on all the rest of the world for his own dreadful isolation. And in "The Late Shift," Etchison suggests convincingly what we have always suspected about the gray-faced people who work those all-night convenience stores and gas stations across the land. His prose is always spare and frequently unemotional, but his ideas and images never fail to chill.
Karl Edward Wagner's In a Lonely Place (Warner, paperback, $2.95) presents seven equally powerful stories but of a totally different sort. Wagner's debt is to the tradition of "weird" fiction in American magazine publishing, but his tales of ancient evils working on the present are brilliantly modern. He is an accomplished prose stylist who can draw the reader effortlessly into his world, whether that world is a bewildering but enticing nightmare ("The River of Night's Dreaming"), an erotic daydream ending in physical and psychological violence ("Beyond Any Measure"), or the grimly realistic scenes of a modern city ("Where the Summer Ends"). "The River of Night's Dreaming" is considered one of the finest stories the genre has produced in recent years, and "Beyond Any Measure" is a World Fantasy Award nominee. Wagner is always a fascinating writer.
One of the places to find such stories when they first appear is Stuart David Schiff's annual anthology, the latest volume of which is Whispers IV (Doubleday, $11.95), part of a series that grew out of Schiff's award- winning Whispers magazine. He is an eclectic editor, willing to take chances, and his taste and good judgment have done much to broaden the field. Whispers contains a fine new story by Frank Belknap Long, who has been writing such tales for nearly 60 years, a beautifully crafted period piece with a wonderful title, "The Reflex- Man in Chinnymuir Close," by Russell Kirk, and a nasty bit of work from Ramsey Campbell about what happens to greedy literary agents. There is also an outstanding new story from Karl Edward Wagner, "Into Whose Hands," set in the hellish wards of a psychiatric hospital, and "I Never Could Say Goodbye" by Charles L. Grant is another of his quietly chilling stories about the ravages of guilt.
Grant's preeminent position in the field is secure; he enjoys, this year alone, five award nominations as both writer and editor. He is an exponent of what he calls "quiet horror," and he produces it both in his own writing and in his annual anthology, the latest of which is Shadows 6 (Doubleday, $11.95). Shadows, like Whispers, regularly presents the work of masters, but this year's volume highlights the work of talented newcomers. It offers, for example, "Crutches," an unforgettable surrealistic nightmare by Steve Rasnic Tem, one of the most talented new writers in the field, and "The Man With Legs" by Al Sarrantonio, another new writer with seemingly endless, and deadly, inventive powers. Also among the new names here, represented by powerful stories, are Joe R. Lansdale and Marc Laidlaw. One shudders, with pleasure, to think what they'll be doing in the future.
Sarrantonia appears again in The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series XI (DAW, paperback, $2.50), edited by Karl Edward Wagner, with "Pumpkin Head," a story certain to change the way to perceive the people around you, particularly when those people are lonely children.
Roald Dahl has gathered together 14 short masterpieces in Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories (Farrar Straus Giroux, $12.95). Dahl's taste, it will surprise no one, is impeccable. "Good ghost stories," he says in an introduction, "are damnably difficult to write," but no one can fault the stories here by such authors as Robert Aickman, L.O. Hartley, E.F. Benson, and Rosemary Timperley, among others, and surely one of the most frightening stories ever written, F. Marion Crawford's "The Upper Berth." This is the best book of its kind in years.
More scholarly, but just as enjoyable, is Jack Sullivan's Lost Souls: A Collection of English Ghost Stories (Ohio University Press, $25.95; paperback, $12.95). Sullivan is the author of Elegant Nightmares, an essential study of the English ghost story, and this book is an illustrative companion volume. He knows this literature thoroughly and his intelligent introduction and thoughtful notes add much to our understanding of the field. His selection of 28 stories--ranging from Le Fanu, M.R. James, and Arthur Machen, through Hodgson and Blackwood, to Elizabeth Bowen, Gerald Kersh, Timperley, Aickman, and Campbell--offers an impressive survey and demonstrates, if proof were needed, the distinguished literary achievements writers in this field can produce. Lost Souls is a basic collection, the perfect place to begin studying one of the most popular and enduring traditions in our literature.
What does it all mean, this avalanche of short stories, both old and new, ranging from amusing ghostly tales to psychological shockers? It means, for one thing, that the short story, as a literary form, is very much alive, and that it is doing what it was first meant to do and what it does best: providing thoughtful and provocative entertainment by serious writers who care about their craft. It also means that readers have plenty of material on hand that is sure to frighten without harm and entertain without fail.