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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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8 Essential Ghost Story Collections to Start Your Own Haunting Library this Halloween

Anthologies are the sampler flights of literature. When I go to a restaurant with its own microbrewery, I always get the sampler flight: six different beers with six different colors, smells, tastes, bodies, character, and personality. By doing this I've opened myself up to trying beers that I never would have bought a whole pint of, and have found myself redirected to entirely new styles of beer. It's the same with anthologies: nearly all of my favorite writers of supernatural fiction were first discovered by being introduced to them in an anthology.

In my house I have a large collection of dog-eared books from Dover, Doubleday, and Del Rey with their tables of contents strangely annotated. Some stories are underlined, some left blank, some underlined with a star beside them, some underlined with a star and then circled... Every time I read an anthology, I leave a trail of bread crumbs for my future self: read this, skip that, read this twice, look this author up, and so on. I would notice names standing out to me as having been frequently underlined -- M. R. James, H. R. Wakefield, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Arthur Machen, W. W. Jacobs -- and would find myself exploring them further. Eventually I would buy collections of their collected works, but first I had to learn to understand and appreciate their taste. Just a sip -- but a sip might lead to a six pack.

Here below I have listed eight anthologies which I would recommend every fan of supernatural fiction get their hands on. There are thousands I've left out, but the eight listed here are the ones I would start anyone off with if they asked me my recommendations. Indeed, this article is directed at anyone who is interested in starting a personal horror library: maybe you have Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- the complete Lovecraft, the Tales of Poe, and a megapack of Stephen King -- but you feel lost when it comes to classic ghost stories. Allow me to point you to eight sampler flights -- eight brilliant collections that have changed by life. Check them out of the library, buy them at the used book store, give them a home next to Stoker and Shelley and Stevenson. And then go through them: sip, taste, ponder, and then head out back for the six-packs...





Exactly what it bills itself to be (A Treasury of Spellbinding Tales Old and New), this first anthology begins a trend that you will notice nearly all of the books here follow: blending the masterworks of the 19th and early 20th centuries with lesser-known works by lesser-known authors of the post-war era. Most great ghost anthologies will try to maintain this balance, but this one stands out as a stellar success. Not only is it a repository of excellent short fiction, but it includes several novellas and novelettes, and six poems to boot.

The stories range from the common classics ("Dracula's Guest," "Carmilla") to the connoisseur pieces ("No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince," "The Hospice") which will develop your familiarity with the greats, but also includes (and this is the majority of the book) rarely anthologized horror stories from the postmodern era -- from authors like Robert Aickman, Ray Matheson, Parke Godwin, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, and Craig Shaw Gardner. Ranging from the 1780s to the 1980s, these stories trace the development of the horror genre from Gothic poems about demon lovers to surrealist nightmares about inescapable outer dimensions.





Although the titles are quite similar, this is a different book altogether, with a more scholastic mood -- perfect for the reader who wants to add a whiff of leather armchair and pipe tobacco to their bookshelves. Every supernatural library needs a solid, academic text sitting there beside the Dover and Wordsworth paperbacks. This heavy-hitting hardcover lends a level of scholarly rigor to any collection, bringing along with it classic literary ghost and horror stories from the standard bearers of the genre (Poe, Stoker, Blackwood, Machen and more) to lesser known masterpieces by surprisingly mainstream contributors (Sayers, Hemingway, O. Henry, Kipling, and more).

You will encounter the world's most influential horror stories here: Collins' "A Terribly Strange Bed," Poe's "M. Valdemar," Dicken's "Trial for Murder," Hawthorne's "Rappacini's Daughter," de Maupassant's "Horla," O'Brien's "What Was It?," Crawford's "Screaming Skull," Lovecraft's "Rats in the Walls," Machen's "Great God Pan," and more. Complete with a scholarly introduction and notes, it provides an intellectual aura to a genre that is frequently neglected by academia. Give your library some gravitas and a heady touch of class.




Another precisely balanced blend of dependable classics and lesser known gems, "Ghostly" is a collection which is recommended more for its finely-crafted selections than for its vast content: indeed, it only has sixteen stories within its covers. But like some other collections we'll look at, sometimes the tidier, more selective anthologies have just as much to offer as the phone-book sized, mammoth omnibuses brimming with dozens of small-print works. This particular anthology is remarkable for its macabre illustrations (somewhat reminiscent of Harry Clarke's narcotic visions of Poe) and for its well-balanced selections.

While it provides some dependable classics (Poe's "The Black Cat" and Saki's "The Open Window" are welcome regulars), most of the stories are less anthologized, and all center around a common theme: surprise. Each of the stories included here involve a protagonist who is utterly overwhelmed by their contact with the uncanny -- they weren't expecting it and it took them by the throat. Included here are jump-inducing tales by M. R. James, Edith Wharton, Oliver Onions, Neil Gaiman, A. M. Burrage, Kelly Link, Amy Giacalone, Rebecca Curtis, and Ray Bradburry. Evenly balanced, beautifully illustrated, and boldly representing the female voices of modern horror, this collection promises shocks and delights.