Consider, for example, “British Weird: Selected Short Fiction, 1893-1937,” edited by James Machin, which features not only classic stories — including Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” and E.F. Benson “Caterpillars”— but also less familiar ones such as Mary Butts’s “Mappa Mundi.” As an extra treat Machin reprints Butts’s four-part 1933 essay, “Ghosties and Ghoulies: Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction,” likening it to H.P. Lovecraft’s pioneering monograph, “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”
I once spent an October researching the feminine tradition of the ghost story, yet Melissa Edmundson’s anthology “Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937” — a follow-up to “Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 ”— highlights three authors new to me, Lettice Galbraith, Barbara Baynton and Bessie Kyffin-Taylor. I quickly decided to salt their stories away for later this fall, figuring they’d all be terrifically enjoyable even if only half as good as Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom,” in which a painting may be a portal to another dimension, or Marjorie Bowen’s surreal tale of revenge, “Florence Flannery.” An equally tempting sampler, Melanie R. Anderson’s “The Women of ‘Weird Tales’ ” resurrects 13 examples of entertaining, pulpy hokum from the “unique magazine” by Greye La Spina, Everil Worrell, Mary Elizabeth Counselman and Eli Colter.
Apart from Vernon Lee (a.k.a. Violet Paget), author of my favorite ghost story, “Amour Dure,” I would rather read Sheridan Le Fanu than any other 19th-century writer of supernatural fiction. For an excellent one-volume overview of his work, you can’t do better than “Green Tea and Other Weird Stories,” edited by Aaron Worth.
Along with its critical apparatus, the particular merit of Worth’s edition lies in its inclusion of Le Fanu’s novella-length masterpieces, “The Haunted Baronet,” “The Room in the Dragon Volant,” and the lesbian vampire chiller, “Carmilla,” as well as two long stories, “The Watcher” and that frightening account of malevolent fairydom, “Laura Silver Bell.”
Not that Le Fanu isn’t just as frightening in his briefer tales. In “Madam Crowl’s Ghost,” a terrified servant girl recalls that she once saw the puppetlike Madam Crowl unexpectedly sit up in bed, spin herself around and stand up wearing two heavy wooden clogs, at which point the hideous old woman “came chatterin’ . . . like a thing on wires, with her fingers pointing to my throat, and she makin’ all the time a sound with her tongue like zizz-zizz-zizz.”
Long ago, August Derleth compiled two anthologies devoted to “poems of fantasy and the macabre”: “Dark of the Moon” and the cozily titled “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight.” His legendary press, Arkham House, also issued single-author poetry collections, notably the scarce and much sought-after “A Hornbook for Witches,” by Leah Bodine Drake. Expect to pay a thousand bucks for a decent copy.
Or you might consider this bargain-priced option, “The Song of the Sun,” Drake’s collected writings superbly edited by David E. Schultz. Here, in one substantial hardcover you’ll find all the poetry Drake published or planned to publish, as well as her fiction and essays, along with a selection of letters and a suite of photographs.
The ballad tradition and Edna St. Vincent Millay clearly influenced Drake’s style, resulting in verse that is musical, immediately appealing and definitely shivery, starting with her titles: “The Path Through the Marsh,” “The Return,” “Changeling,” “The Wood-Wife.” Sometimes Drake even undercuts her spookiness with humor. Here, for instance, is “The Coven”:
Cross-legged on the Sarsen Stone
Satan sits, with stag-horn crown.
Witches kneeling by his throne
Wonder at his mask in fear:
Is it Sin in person here?
(Likely just a clerk from town!)
Few writers of dark fantasy can wholly resist the siren call of Cthulhu or the occasional urge to pastiche H.P. Lovecraft. In “Building Strange Temples,” Don Webb has collected more than 40 of his eldritch, Yog-Sothothian-inflected tales. In “Ophiuchus” the mysterious Lemuel Whateley visits the Elizabethan magus Dr. Dee bribing him to translate a manuscript, nothing less than a Greek version of “The Necronomicon.” At the story’s end, Whateley — a name that resonates with Lovecraft aficionados — plans to emigrate to New England and there perfect his experiments in life extension. What fate, however, awaits Dee’s now demon-impregnated daughter?
While the house of horror has many mansions, my own favorite subgenre is the reticent, often enigmatic “strange tale.” This is a specialty of Tartarus Press, which celebrates a major anniversary with “Strange Tales: Tartarus Press at 30,” edited by co-founder Rosalie Parker.
This handsome volume showcases work by 18 writers, but I immediately devoured “Hunger,” by Andrew Michael Hurley, whose novel, “The Loney,” initially published by Tartarus, became a critically acclaimed bestseller in its trade edition. When Julian spends a holiday in France, he wonders why a nearby village is strangely deserted. After he inadvertently violates a peculiar law about fishing, things that were just puzzling — empty kitchens, skeletal images of children, a sign in French reading “forgive us”— quickly grow ominous and then far more than simply ominous.
Another contributor, Reggie Oliver, is one of my favorite contemporary authors. In “Collectable,” an out-of-work actor takes a job at a nursing home where he discovers that the ancient Mrs. Vandeleur was once the Edwardian music hall artiste, Elsie Grace. As the story progresses, Elsie’s whimsical, signature ditty takes on preternatural significance: “I’m a fairy sunbeam/ Flitting through the trees/ Tickling the daffodils/ Floating on the breeze. . . . Oh, what fun!” Fun? Maybe, maybe not.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.