Looking for the perfect Halloween gift for the nasty woman in your haunted house? Try Literary Witches (Seal, $20). It's an enchanted anthology of 30 great female writers — from Anais Nin to Zora Neale Hurston. Each one is captured in a folkloric illustration by Katy Horan and then, on the facing page, illuminated with a bewitching description by Taisia Kitaiskaia.
These mini biographies — "the hexen text" — are more witchopedia than wikipedia. Kitaiskaia boils each writer down to three invocations, weaving historical facts with her own surreal visions. Emily Bronte, for instance, "Watcher of the Moors, Fantasy, and Cruel Romance," "makes a telescope from ice and twine. Though this tunnel, she stares into her own eye until she sees a galaxy, and through the galaxy until she sees a stranger's eye."
Gertrude Stein, "Madame of Roses, Geometry, and Repetition," "is a spider, weaving a web of funhouse mirrors. . . . For Gertrude, each word is a hedgehog in a metal cage."
If you know the writers, these symbol-laced musings are evocative; if you don't, they're alluringly mysterious.
You can encounter the women in any order — it's impossible not to flip back and forth — but the cumulative effect of these incantatory reflections is unsettling in the best way. And if you're provoked to find out more, each write-up concludes with three well-chosen reading suggestions either by or about the literary witch.
In their brief preface, Horan and Kitaiskaia give a rousing defense of their title: "All artists are magicians, and Witches wield a special magic. Witches and women writers alike dwell in creativity, mystery, and other worlds. They aren't afraid to be alone in the woods of their imaginations, or to live in huts of their own making. They're not afraid of the dark."
For something steeped in the macabre, check out the irresistible The Ghost Box ($32), edited by comedian Patton Oswalt. This is the latest from Hingston & Olsen , a little Canadian publisher whose creations remind us what e-books can't do.
"The Ghost Box" is a collection of individually bound stories laid to rest in an elegant box that snaps shut like a tomb (maybe there's a magnet; maybe it's magic). The authors range from old masters like Arthur Machen and W.F. Harvey to still-living writers like Dennis Etchison and George R.R. Martin. (H.P. Lovecraft makes an appearance, too, in a surprising way.)
These creepy little booklets, ranging from five to 53 pages, offer a whole night of entertainment around the campfire — or read them alone if you're brave enough. There are monsters and spirits, murderers and mad scientists and, of course, narrators losing their sanity (some know it, some don't).
Oswalt, who won a Grammy last year for his album and stand-up comedy special "Talking for Clapping," might seem an odd editor for this ghastly collection, but as a teen he loved scary stories. "I was an '80s kid," he says, "which means my gateway was Stephen King's 'Night Shift' collection, and then I gobbled up Peter Straub and James Herbert and Harlan Ellison, and from that point on, I spiraled backward into Matheson and Lovecraft and Machen, and I pretty much never emerged."
When he mentioned the idea of "a Halloween horror story advent calendar" to Hingston & Olsen, the publisher jumped on the idea like Dracula on a virgin's neck.
Oswalt says his selections for "The Ghost Box" were guided by Lovecraft's edicts from "Supernatural Horror in Literature": Mood and setting, and the subtlety of something amiss in the cosmos. All of these stories have that in spades, until they don't, at which point some of them grab you by the lapels and start scaring the bejesus out of you."
He's right. And remember: THE STORIES ARE COMING FROM INSIDE THE BOX!
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.