Recommendations for Halloween reading
By Michael Dirda,
Between Halloween and Twelfth Night (traditionally Jan. 6) lies the best time of the year. And I don’t say that just because I was born in November. You’ve got wonderful holidays to enjoy, as well as family get-togethers, school breaks and all those long, chilly evenings, perfect for watching old movies and rereading old books — or even for delving into strange tomes and forbidden grimoires. For this is, above all, the season for supernatural tales and impossible crimes, for the kind of stories one imagines enjoying by a fireside, while sitting in a soft chair, under an eiderdown, with a hot drink near at hand. For such moments — whether real or only imagined — you should look for some of the following new books, available from a range of small publishers.
Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey & Peter F. Neumeyer, edited by Peter F. Neumeyer (Pomegranate, $35). If you’re a fan of the late Edward Gorey, revered for his cross-hatched drawings and his innocently macabre booklets with such titles as “The Insect God” and “The Hapless Child,” you’ll certainly want to add this beautifully produced album to your collection. Not only does it contain Gorey’s working correspondence with Peter Neumeyer about a series of children’s books they created together during the 1960s, but it also reveals Gorey to be as fine a letter writer as he was an artist. Addicted to movies of every kind and era, a regular at the ballet and an astonishingly wide-ranging reader, Gorey shares all these passions with Neumeyer. He regularly decorates his envelopes and letters with drawings and copies out quotations from his favorite books: “There is a sentence from ‘The Aunt’s Story’ by Patrick White which I have always remembered: ‘Life is full of alternatives but no choice.’ ” Not only does this admirer of the most delicate Japanese verse enjoy “Blood Fiend” and “Brides of Blood,” but he also plans to see “Barbarella” twice — this in the era before VHS tapes and DVDs. Sometimes, Gorey drops in sentences that might be captions from one of his own little chapbooks: “Do you think it is too late for me to devote my life to something to do with String?” And how can you resist anyone who writes, “Another day fraught with fruitless endeavour confronts me”? A wonderful present for yourself or any Gorey enthusiast.
The Duel of Shadows: The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth, by Vincent Cornier, edited by Mike Ashley (Crippen & Landru, $18). If you’re a fan of the locked-room mysteries of John Dickson Carr or the enigmatic cases of the early Ellery Queen, this is the book for you. Between the mid-1930s and early 1950s, Cornier wrote a dozen mystery stories that take the impossible-seeming crime to new heights. A man is suddenly transformed into stone, a bullet fired during an 18th-century duel manages to wound a man in the 20th century, a Venetian goblet disappears from a man’s hand but not before somehow injecting a killing poison. In this last, it turns out that the victim was murdered “by a sound, by a stone, and by a flower that grew on the Plains of Altare, in Italy, four hundred years ago.” Crippen & Landru has published more than 90 collections of short stories by both celebrated and forgotten mystery writers. This is the latest in its “Lost Classics” series.
Vintage Vampire Stories, edited by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Richard Dalby (Skyhorse; paperback, $12.95). The great attraction of this anthology is that it offers fresh blood: Instead of such familiar classics as, say, Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and Robert Aickman’s “Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal,” the editors have reprinted a dozen or more almost-forgotten stories, including G.J. Whyte-Melville’s “Madame de St. Croix” (1869), Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Herself” (1894) and Dick Donovan’s “The Woman With the ‘Oily Eyes’ ” (1899). As an extra bonus, the anthology includes facsimiles of Bram Stoker’s notes for “Dracula,” back when it was still called “The Un-Dead.”
Readers who can’t get enough vampirism should also seek out Blood and Other Cravings, edited by Ellen Datlow (Tor, $25.99). Datlow — our leading anthologist of dark fantasy and horror — gathers stories by such modern masters as Reggie Oliver, Steve Rasnic Tem, Margo Lanagan, Lisa Tuttle, Steve Duffy and Carol Emshwiller, among others. Even the titles of these sanguinary tales are disturbingly suggestive: “Sweet Sorrow,” by Barbara Roden; “The Third Always Beside You,” by John Langan; “The Siphon,” by Laird Barron.
A more focused collection of the eerie and fantastic is Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers (Harper Voyage; paperback, $14.99). Here one can read more from Margo Lanagan, Laird Barron and John Langan, as well as new work by Jeffrey Ford, James Morrow, Paul Park and Lucius Shepard, not to overlook such elder gods as Robert Silverberg, Gene Wolfe and Peter S. Beagle. All of these stories take place in that half real, half imaginary 19th century of zeppelins and gaslight, of haunted houses and fiendish masterminds. Garth Nix, for instance, contributes “The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder” featuring Sir Magnus Holmes, the charmingly insane cousin of Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes, who is partnered with his attractive keeper, the “Almost-Doctor Susan Shrike.” Could a hideous crime involving daffodils be the work of a secret society of barber-illuminati?
Many people think that there were few mysteries before those featuring the aforementioned Sherlock Holmes. Not so, according to the latest research from the master historian of crime fiction, LeRoy Lad Panek. In Before Sherlock Holmes: How Magazines and Newspapers Invented the Detective Story (McFarland, $40), Panek has discovered that mysteries and crime fiction were a regular feature in 19th-century periodicals ranging from the Wellsboro, Pa., “Tioga Eagle” to “The Locomotive Engineer’s Monthly Journal.” His research will revise, and enrich, all our thinking about the history of the detective story. With his colleague Mary Bendel-Simso, Panek has identified more than a thousand criminous stories published in the United States before 1891. Many of them are available online at the fascinating Westminster Detective Library.
A few years back, H.P. Lovecraft was enshrined in the Library of America. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make fun of his eldritch horrors and lurking fears. In Forever Azathoth: Pastiches and Parodies (Subterranean, $40) Peter Cannon captures Lovecraft’s style deliciously, takes affectionate digs at such horror eminences as critic S.T. Joshi and writer T.E.D. Klein, and even — has the man no shame? — subjects a number of mainstream classics to a hideous cross-pollination. What if P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster got mixed up in one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories? See “Cats, Rats, and Bertie Wooster,” followed by “Something Foetid.” In “Tender is the Night-Gaunt,” characters from F. Scott Fitzgerald go on a quest for Unknown Kadath, and in “The Sound and the Fungi,” the Compsons sell their pasture to aliens and Caddy marries a Yuggothian, whom she makes very unhappy.
If books such as these are your cup of tea, or even your goblet of ichor, be sure to check out their publishers’ complete offerings as well as comparable works issued by other presses specializing in the outre and fantastic, including PS Publishing, Small Beer Press, Tartarus Press, Centipede Press and Night Shade Books.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion at wapo.st/reading-room.