These scary stories will chill your blood during Halloween

Michael Dirda
Washington Post

So, it’s a dark and stormy night in October or November and you find yourself ensconced at an isolated but charming B&B, perhaps one located near Poroth Farm or just down the road from the pricey Overlook Hotel. On the nightstand next to your canopy bed are a half dozen new books, all of them geared to this spooky time of the year. What might they be?

As it happens, several classics of horror literature are out this fall in desirable new editions. Replete with color illustrations and stills from numerous films, “The New Annotated ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’” (Mysterious Press) brings out the best — or do I mean the beast? — in editor Leslie S. Klinger, whose notes and visual extras richly amplify Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece. Arguably the greatest ghost story of them all, Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” is atmospherically illustrated by Audrey Benjaminsen and beautifully printed by the Folio Society.

"The New Annotated 'Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,'" edited by Leslie S. Klinger; "The Unknown Island and Other Tales of Fantasy and the Supernatural," by H.T.W. Bousfield; "Things That Wait in the Dark," edited by Richard Lamb and Hugh Lamb

Folio has also recently reissued the incomparable haunted-house novel, Shirley Jackson’s highly disturbing “The Haunting of Hill House,” with compelling artwork by Angie Hoffmeister. No one forgets the disquieting final words of its opening paragraph: At Hill House, “whatever walked there, walked alone.”

A few years ago, Jackson entered the Library of America in what is the best one-volume selection from her writing, thanks to editor Joyce Carol Oates. This fall, the LoA has issued a two-volume boxed set, edited by Jonathan R. Eller, gathering the finest works of a writer who was Jackson’s contemporary and her equal as an author of unnerving stories: Ray Bradbury. Set aside his science fiction and consider the novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” in which the ominous Cooger & Dark Carnival arrives in an idyllic Illinois town. It, too, has an unforgettable opening: “The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.” Even more unsettling are Bradbury’s early stories, including “The Veldt,” “Zero Hour,” “The Jar,” “The Small Assassin” and the terrifying Jackson-like account of a woman’s descent into madness, “The Next in Line.” Here, truly, is the October Country.

Shivery and wonderful as these acknowledged classics are, the very stuff of nightmares, what if you’re thirsting for some fresh blood in your reading? Where should you turn?

Start with the specialty presses. In particular, check out the websites of those mentioned below, but also the sites for Tartarus Press, Undertow Publications, Swan River Press and Sarob Press. What follows is simply a sampler, a few sheaves from this fall’s rich and strange abundance.

The “liminal tales” of Attila Veres’s “The Black Maybe,” translated from the Hungarian by Luca Karafiáth (Valancourt Books), are as bizarre and powerful as any since the heyday of Thomas Ligotti. For instance, the title story begins: “Tradition dictates every step of the harvest. The young ones collect the snails in the daytime, while the men oil the chains at night.” Snails? Chains? Things soon grow even creepier.

In Veres’s over-the-top “Multiplied by Zero,” a burned-out, depressed narrator — “I threw away my days like used tissues” — records his experiences on a trip with Abaddon Travels. The “Askathoth Travel Package” is advertised as “challenging” — few people survive - but those who worship the Faceless Lords embrace its nightmarish journey toward “transformation.” Early on, the tour group worships at the Ar’ktak ne Kth’far church, in which it is required that “some kind of creature must be agonizing on top of the altar every minute every day.” While the story’s horrors are Lovecraftian, one at times suspects that the Grand Guignol cruelty may reflect sly parody: “I awoke with a scream. We all woke up, except for those who were already dead by then.”

This year, the British Library’s “Tales of the Weird” features several highly original themed anthologies. “Spectral Sounds: Unquiet Tales of Acoustic Weird,” edited by Manon Burz-Labrande, resurrects many lesser-known works before reaching the Usher-like apogee of this aural subgenre, M.P. Shiel’s “The House of Sounds.” “Our Haunted Shores: Tales From the Coasts of the British Isles,” edited by Emily Alder, Jimmy Packham and Joan Passey, includes, among much else, Charlotte Riddell’s devilish “The Last of Squire Ennismore,” about a barrel of brandy washed ashore following a shipwreck and the mysterious stranger with whom it is drunk. Not least, the title story of “The Night Wire and Other Tales of Weird Media,” edited by Aaron Worth, is a pulp masterpiece about a malevolent fog attacking an unknown city called Xebico.

Worth’s fine collection also reprints Marjorie Bowen’s seance chiller, “They Found My Grave,” which is also one of the highlights of “Things That Wait in the Dark,” edited by Richard Lamb and Hugh Lamb (Kingsbrook Publishing). This is the second anthology in which Richard Lamb continues his late father’s invaluable practice of reintroducing half-forgotten tales of terror by gaslight. Read it while sipping brandy or chamomile tea.

Fans of horror-lite should certainly enjoy H.T.W. Bousfield’s “The Unknown Island and Other Tales of Fantasy and the Supernatural,” edited and introduced by James Doig (Ramble House). Bousfield’s 1930s stories may not be ambitious, but they are entertaining and chattily told in the style of a club tale — the kind in which a mustachioed brigadier or retired colonial administrator suddenly says, “That reminds me of a rather rum thing that once happened to me.” For example, “The Unknown Island” and “The God With Four Arms” relate unfortunate encounters with, respectively, Medusa and the Indian deity Indra.

Frank Belknap Long was, in his youth, one of H.P. Lovecraft’s closest friends and disciples, best known for his early stories in the manner of the master, notably “The Space-Eaters,” “A Visitor From Egypt” and “The Hounds of Tindalos,” this last a tale of angles and curves and monsters that travel through time. All three stories, and many others, appear in “Frank Belknap Long,” the most recent omnibus in Centipede Press’s Library of Weird Fiction, edited by S.T. Joshi. Fans of this Weird Tales-era author may also enjoy Peter Cannon’s complementary “Long Memories and Other Writings,” (Hippocampus), which includes a memoir of Long in his later years — he died in 1994 at age 92 — that mixes affection, pathos, frustration and gallows humor. Coupled with it is Cannon’s appealing mash-up “Pulptime,” a short novel in which Long chronicles an adventure pairing H.P. Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes.

As I say, this is just a sampling of recent books for Halloween and beyond. But let’s return for a moment to that charmingly appointed B&B. If I were its proprietor, I would provide a shelf of older ghost-story anthologies, so that those unable to sleep might shudder under an eiderdown with Vernon Lee’s “Amour Dure,” M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes,” L.P. Hartley’s “A Visitor From Down Under,” Oliver Onions’s “The Beckoning Fair One” or Walter de la Mare’s “All Hallows.”

Of course, those are just five of my own favorites, and tastes do differ. Which spooky tales would you choose to read on moonlit evenings of mist and slithering shadow?