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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Reviewing: Nightscripts, An Anthology of Strange & Darksome Tales

In the preface to the inaugural edition of Nightscript, C. M. Muller invites us to join him “in an invigorating walk through the darkness,” to “delight in what we fear.” Nightscript certainly helps to guide its readers into the sometimes-forbidding terrors of our wordless anxieties with a gentle ghost light. Evocative of Ellen Datlow’s brilliant Hauntings, this collection is a consistently soft, blended ombré of elegance and revulsion, perhaps no more immediately demonstrated than in Theodor Kittelsen's gorgeous cover illustration, "The Water Spirit". Upon first look, it depicts the glassy surface of a pond – bucolic, meditative, serene. Lilly pads float in its surface like dark eyes, and the water is enflamed with twilight. But the longer you look at the scene the more you fear what that opaque surface might be hiding – what made that ripple in the water, how far are you from other people, and how long will the fairy-dusk last before night falls and brings the promised darkness? Not immediately obvious on the cover, but tantilizingly hinted at near the spine, is the head of the eponymous goblin rising spectraly from the pond -- eyes gleaming dully like lamplight under water. Like its cover, Nightscript is both beautiful and ghastly.

The stories are thematically rich, psychologically raw, and emotionally genuine. Each tale certainly has its individual merits, but collectively they move en masse towards a larger, shared worldview, and demonstrate the editor’s taste for high quality, literary-grade horror. They evoke the best elements of classic horror while pushing the boundaries of 21st century speculative fiction. Charles Wilkinson’s “In His Grandmother’s Coat” shares its DNA with Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar,” John Collier’s “Thus I Refute Beelzy,” M. R. James’ “Rats,” and H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House,” but it is hardly a pastiche: it looks closely at the very realistic terrors of post-partum depression, teenage lone wolves, and the decay of the family. Michael Kelly’s petite “A Quiet Axe” (part prose poem, part flash fiction) packs a shockingly concentrated punch with a word painting that rivals any of Edward Hooper’s emotionally-wrenching modern portraits. It features the ghost of a living woman whose soul has been wrung lifeless by an abusive marriage and a barren farm. Kyle Yadlosky takes a stomach-churning look at the possible abuses of an unquestioning religion in “She Rose From the Water” – a story that will resonate with (and repulse) any parent, while Christopher Burke’s “Fish and Lure” – an Aickmanesque horror that carries all the upsetting strangeness of “Swords,” “The Same Dog,” and “Ringing in the Changes” – casts a child as the antagonist.

In fact, if one single theme resonated in this book more than any other it was the presence of children. Each of the stories mentioned above features this motif, and almost every tale in the book either casts children as a character, a plot device, or a presence. Horror has always been fascinated by the vulnerability of children: the first victim in Frankenstein (other than the Creature himself) is a boy; “The Old Nurse’s Story” – the first truly great Victorian ghost tale – follows the attempts of a child ghost to lure a living girl to a death by exposure; The Turn of the Screw remains the unquestioned novel-length masterpiece of the ghost genre, and Carmilla concerns the attempted seduction of a teenager from innocent girlhood to sexual maturity. This collection, while founded in this seasoned tradition, plants itself squarely in the current century with an eye towards the shifting social and moral landscape. The children in Nightscript are victims of a world where adults are absorbed in their own insecurities, sometimes taking on the role of avengers or villains in the vacuum of reliable authority. Abuses of authority, conflicts of interest, and abject self-absorption plague the world of Nightscript, and its victims must either decide to rise up and take an eye for an eye – becoming the monsters of their own horrorscape – or fall prey to a universe of exploitation and self-involvement.

Nightscript features an elegant, professional aesthetic – from its formatting and fonts to the quality of paper and printing – and is as thought-provoking and philosophical as it is chilling and horrifying. A purchase of this anthology is highly recommended to fans of intelligent and well-crafted horror.


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