As the March sisters of "Little Women" might have said, "It wouldn't be Halloween without any ghost stories." Below are six recent books to help you get in the holiday spirit.
The Ghost in the Corner And Other Stories , by Lord Dunsany, edited by S.T. Joshi and Martin Andersson (Hippocampus Press). Anyone asked to pick the single most influential fantasy writer of the 20th century, with the possible exception of J.R.R. Tolkien, would almost certainly choose Lord Dunsany. His early stories about strange gods, as well as his prose poems such as "Idle Days on the Yann," are composed in sentences of exquisite musicality. H.P. Lovecraft, no less, started out by trying to imitate the Irishman's dreamlike narratives and captivating word magic. A few of Dunsany's stories, as well as his novel "The King of Elfland's Daughter," even helped usher in the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, while the "club stories" of Mr. Joseph Jorkens remain the models for all later round-the-fire tales.
Dunsany wrote some 600 stories, many hitherto uncollected and some unpublished — until "The Ghost in the Corner." To be fair, none of these is a match for "The Hoard of the Gibbelins" or that murderous classic, "Two Bottles of Relish," but they do reveal the older Dunsany's mastery of an ingratiating, conversational style. "A Witch in the Balkans" opens: "It was Christmas eve at a country house, in which the house-party were gathered in armchairs before a fireplace that had never been modernized and still had room for big logs, which were now quietly burning." When asked for a ghost story, a certain gentleman declares that he can't contribute one because he's never seen a ghost. The assembly plaintively asks, "Don't you know any tale of banshees, goblins or witches?" He replies, "O, witches. That is a different matter." Yes, indeed.
The Best of Richard Matheson , edited by Victor LaValle (Penguin). You could make a strong case for Richard Matheson as the most influential American writer of "fantastika" between Lovecraft and Stephen King. "I Am Legend," "The Incredible Shrinking Man," "Hell House" — these novels, eventually transformed into classic horror movies, might alone provide sufficient evidence for that claim. But Matheson also wrote such famous stories as "Duel," filmed for TV by the young Steven Spielberg, and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," a particularly memorable episode of "The Twilight Zone." I thought I knew most of Matheson's short fiction — other outstanding examples include "Born of Man and Woman," "Third From the Sun" and "One for the Books" — and yet editor LaValle has chosen at least a dozen I can't remember ever having read. Which means this Halloween really will be filled with treats.
Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M.R. James , by Patrick J. Murphy (Pennsylvania State University Press). If you've never yet enjoyed M.R. James's shivery "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary" — available in many editions, including a particularly handsome new one from the Folio Society — their titles alone convey something of what the author called "a pleasing terror": "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad," "Casting the Runes." Despite James's pre-eminence among ghost-story authors, "Medieval Studies" is the first full-length book to tease out the connections between his medieval scholarship and his fiction. Any Jamesian will be surprised at how much new light Murphy casts on these eerie tales of revenants and demons.
The Travelling Grave and Other Stories , by L.P. Hartley (Valancourt); The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories, Volume Two , edited by James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle (Valancourt). Nearly everyone has heard or read the opening line of L.P. Hartley's haunting, heartbreaking novel, "The Go-Between": "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." A similar combination of stylishness and shock can be discovered in his many macabre tales, the best-known being his punningly titled classic, "A Visitor from Down Under." As well as reissuing Hartley's "The Travelling Grave," with a discerning introduction by John Howard, Valancourt's editors have also unearthed 14 neglected shockers for a wide-ranging horror sampler, opening with Bernard Taylor's "Samhain," set at Halloween, and including unsettling work by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Michael McDowell and John Metcalfe.
Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi (Hippocampus Press). Few books have been more eagerly awaited than this extensive, annotated correspondence between two giants of the weird tale. While Lovecraft is world-famous for his Cthulhu Mythos, Smith specialized in elegant fantasies set in various imaginary realms, such as the decadent Zothique and medieval Averoigne. At its most poetical, his style resembles that of early Dunsany, but in some memorable stories — such as "The Seven Geases" or "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros"— he emphasizes a biter-bit irony that recalls Jack Vance or the darker tales of "The Arabian Nights."
In these nearly 800 pages, the two friends — who never met in person — discuss their writing, finances, the tribulations of the literary life and, not least, their aesthetic ideals. "The more I consider weird fiction," notes Lovecraft, "the more I am convinced that a solidly realistic framework is needed in order to build up a preparation for the unreal element." The letters can also be self-deprecatingly funny. When "Klarkash-Ton" sends Lovecraft a rock that "resembles" one of the latter's elder gods, the author of "The Call of Cthulhu" replies:
"Have just been studying Ranorada-Tsathoggua with a magnifier. God! What half effaced hieroglyphics are those near the base? No, no! — it can't be . . . not the Elder Script of those things . . . not the Ultimate Secret from the void beyond curves & angles. . . I tremble, I tremble!" The letter then smilingly closes with "Yrs for additional trembling—E'ch-Pi-El."
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.