In the early 1980s, Twilight Zone magazine featured a series of lists — by Thomas M. Disch, R.S. Hadji (a.k.a. Robert Knowlton) and Karl Edward Wagner — of noted and neglected masterpieces of horror and the supernatural. Enthusiastic readers have been collecting these titles ever since.
This year’s roundup of Halloween chillers — all in paperback, unless otherwise indicated — includes three Twilight Zone novels: J.U. Nicolson’s “Fingers of Fear” (Valancourt, $16.99); Anne Hébert’s “Children of the Black Sabbath” (Centipede; hardcover, $50); and Paul Busson’s “The Fire Spirits” (Ramble House , $20). The first, published in 1937, is a gothic gore-fest described by critic E.F. Bleiler as 40 years ahead of its time; it would, he said, make an excellent horror film. Hébert’s shocking novel — winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Award in 1975 — explores demonic possession and religious madness, while Busson’s 1923 historical thriller, set during the Napoleonic era, concerns uncanny lights and a hidden valley in the Tyrolean mountains.
As this trio makes clear, weird fiction can leave your senses disordered and your mind reeling — or simply gross you out. Centipede’s retro line of Vintage Horrors comprises sturdy cloth reissues of sleazy but now rare paperbacks such as “Queen of Blood,” by Charles Nuetzel (hardcover, $45), and “The Slime Beast,” by schlockmeister Guy N. Smith (hardcover, $45). Reading them, you’ll think you’re watching B movies from the 1950s.
Yet turn around and, lo!, modern horror has made its way into high-end Penguin paperbacks. “Perchance to Dream” ($16) selects some of the classic short stories of Charles Beaumont, best known for scripting many legendary “Twilight Zone” episodes. In “The Howling Man” — his masterpiece, according to his friend Harlan Ellison — we follow a rich young American in search of pleasure and adventure in 1920s Europe who finds himself recovering from pneumonia in a German monastery. The monks are kind to him, but why do they not hear the constant piteous cries emanating from one locked cell?
Beaumont, who died at 38 from a rare disease that accelerated the aging process, has been enjoying a rediscovery. Centipede’s deluxe hardcover editions of his major fiction sold out almost immediately, but Valancourt offers “The Hunger and Other Stories” ($16.99); “The Intruder” ($16.99), about racial tension in the South); and, just out, the posthumous collection “A Touch of the Creature,” ($15.99), edited by Beaumont’s biographer, Roger Anker.
This fall, Penguin has also reissued “The Case Against Satan” ($15), by Ray Russell, a sleek, compelling tale of diabolical possession that prefigures “The Exorcist.” So, too, does the unsettling title novella about a family curse visited upon a new bride in David Case’s “Fengriffen & Other Gothic Tales” (Valancourt, $17.99). A companion volume is Case’s “The Cell & Other Transmorphic Tales” ($17.99), which rings some deeply disturbing changes on the themes of the werewolf and Frankenstein’s monster. In particular, Case injects more overt psychosexual frissons into tales that deliberately confuse the humanly horrific — serial murder, rape — with incursions of the supernatural.
Despite a relatively small output, Case should be considered among the half-dozen finest living practitioners of the horror story. Still, he is dwarfed by Thomas Ligotti, regarded by many as the only contemporary American writer who can be spoken of in the same breath as Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. In “‘Songs of a Dead Dreamer’ and ‘Grimscribe’ ” ($17) Penguin has coupled his first two collections, from 1986 and 1991. No matter how nightmarish the events described, Ligotti’s prose is always precise and beautifully controlled.
In his best-known story, “The Last Feast of Harlequin,” a depressive anthropologist reports on a bizarre carnival held in the secluded Midwestern town of Mirocaw. Buildings there seem to be slightly out of focus, some of its residents act like zombies and one of them even resembles the anthropologist’s long-lost mentor. On the night of winter solstice, having disguised himself as one of the shunned and listless creatures, the narrator uncovers the hideous truth about Mirocaw, his former teacher and himself. Dedicated to Lovecraft and partly modeled after “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” this was Ligotti’s first masterpiece, soon followed by “The Greater Festival of Masks,” “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” and many others.
While only a few writers ever become brand names, Lovecraft is unquestionably one of them. This Halloween season, for instance, you can take in Washington’s Molotov Theatre’s production of “Lovecraft: Nightmare Suite,” adapted by Dan Spurgeon, or settle down for several evenings with Darrell Schweitzer’s “Awaiting Strange Gods: Weird and Lovecraftian Fictions” (Fedogan & Bremer; hardcover, $39.95). In “Class Reunion,” for example, the unfortunate alumni of Orne Academy, founded by Joseph Curwen and Jedediah Orne (from Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”), assemble to learn their unspeakable destiny. In “The Runners Beyond the Wall,” Schweitzer expertly blends the Lovecraftian with elements from M.R. James’s “Lost Hearts,” producing an unnerving tale of near immortality and a deal with something worse than the devil.
As scholar S.T. Joshi notes in his introduction, Schweitzer is one of fantastic literature’s Renaissance men, moving easily from fiction and poetry to criticism to the in-depth author interview.
If you’re already a devotee of the just-mentioned M.R. James, you can enjoy much the same eerie atmosphere of his “ghost stories of an antiquary” in the work of his early admirers, affectionately dubbed the James Gang. These include H. Russell Wakefield, A.N.L. Munby and — new to me — Henry Chapman Mercer, whose 1928 collection, “November Night Tales,” has just been issued by Valancourt ($16.99). It opens with “Castle Valley,” in which two young men discover a mysterious crystal that allows them to glimpse a now-vanished Gothic castle, a vision that dramatically alters their lives.
Some argue that James’s genteel, old-fashioned storytelling was a dead end, and that Arthur Machen or Algernon Blackwood should be viewed as Britain’s true “opener of the way” to modern fiction of the supernatural.
This pair’s two supreme masterpieces, Machen’s “The White People” and Blackwood’s “The Willows,” are available in “Shadows of Carcosa: Tales of Cosmic Horror,” edited by D. Thin (New York Review Books, $15.95). Machen’s “The Bowmen” is known even to nonreaders, since it represents, as Richard J. Bleiler observes in “The Strange Case of ‘The Angels of Mons’ ” (McFarland , $39.95), a pre-Internet instance of an idea “going viral.” This World War I tale of angelic archers who answer the prayers of desperate British soldiers almost instantly passed from fiction into supposed fact: German infantrymen were even said to have been found dead of arrow wounds. Bleiler reprints the original story, as well as articles in support and refutation of this early example of an urban myth.
For more World War I strangeness, one might turn to the distinctly pulpish title story of “The Broken Fang and Other Experiences of a Specialist in Spooks,” by Uel Key (Ramble, $20). Here, occult detective Arnold Rhymer discovers that German adepts are reanimating dead soldiers into unstoppable killing machines.
Fans of the supernatural sleuth (Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” are more recent instances) should also look for “Giving Up the Ghosts” (Coachwhip, $14.95). Editor Tim Prasil introduces several psychic investigators who feature in two or three stories apiece by the likes of Gelett Burgess and A.M. Burrage, among others. Included is Blackwood’s Jim Shorthouse, a precursor to the author’s more famous specialist in the outré, John Silence. Don’t miss Shorthouse’s deliciously kitschy visit to a werewolf, “The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York.”
Here, with sad irony, the overall theme is the afterlife. In “Sight Unseen,” a wrenching father-son story, the narrator speculates about his dad’s apparently psychotic conviction that aliens have been using his eyes to spy on the world.
But was he really insane? Humankind, said T.S. Eliot, cannot bear very much reality.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style. He will be speaking about nautical literature at 11 a.m. Oct. 31 at the Bookplate in Chestertown, Md., as part of the weekend’s Downrigging Festival.