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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.




My bias is towards the classics for several reasons: I'm an old soul with a heavy interest in history, I like the quaint hopefulness of Victorian fiction, and I can publish their works without paying royalties (that's a big one). But that doesn't mean a supernatural library should only smack of oil lamps, hansom cabs, and top hats. Ellen Datlow's ingeniously edited "Hauntings" brings home the literary genius of "Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural," but plucks exclusively from living, modern masters. The stories involve hauntings in such uncommon places as a Vietnam War encampment, a cargo plane filled with coffins, and an abandoned tower restaurant which serves as a gateway to an other-dimensional beast.

What was it like to read Lovecraft or Poe during their lifetimes? Sit down with this book and be introduced to our day's most potent writers of horror: Joyce Carol Oates, Kelly Link, Elizabeth Hand, Stephen Gallagher, Neil Gaiman, Gemma Files, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Straub, and more, bringing you tales of postmodern hauntings. It's stories go beyond body horror and gross-outs, landing firmly in the realm of existential terror with tales of spiritual alienation, metaphysical disconnect, and social isolation. From the killing fields of Jonestown to a ghost spaceship, its stories bring the supernatural genre to the 21st century. It is truly one of the most frightening anthologies I've ever read, and one of my favorites. Keep your library fashionably up to date with this brilliant collection.





But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater: the classics help inform our appreciation of the living masters, and this Oxford anthology ingeniously surveys the genre of the Victorian ghost story. This study specifically focuses on that genre, so don't expect weird tales or body horror ("The Squaw" and "The Great God Pan" won't be found here), but expect the breathy, existential anxiety that typifies the Victorian ghost story. Ranging from Elizabeth Gaskell's "The Old Nurse's Story" to Algernon Blackwood's "The Kit-Bag," this collection explores both the conventional (tasty samplings of Gothic indulgence like Henry James' "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes") and the frighteningly experimental (uncanny supernatural manifestations like Stevenson's Lovecraftian "Body-Snatcher" and Perceval Landon's creepily realistic "Thurnley Abbey").

While Victorian ghost stories often lack the intensity and emotion of modern supernatural fiction, they work in the margins, weaving a sinister subtext that many modern stories bypass. As a result, these stories are disturbing far less for what they show than what they imply: we sense unspeakable atrocities in the background of these polite, courtly stories, and when read by dim lamplight on a windy autumn evening, they can often be surprisingly powerful to the 21st century imagination. Absolutely no library of ghost fiction should be without this sumptuous sampler of the Victorian era's greatest frights. You'll be introduced to the titans of terror -- M. R. James, Blackwood, Jacobs, Nesbit, and more -- as well as woefully underappreciated genius of the genre like Capes, Molesworth, Broughton, Loring, and Pain. A must-have.





This extremely wide-ranging anthology -- one of a long series from Greenburg and Sarrantonio -- could almost stand alone as a introductory primer for the entire genre of horror, and for all of its immediately apparent cheapness, it could easily be used as a textbook for a survey class on horror fiction from the 1820s to the 21st century. Like any good anthology, it offers a tidy arrangement of heavy-hitting, reliable masterpieces (from Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, Lovecraft, and Stoker -- to mention a few) as well as modern thrillers from post-Lovecraft, mid-century masters (like Fritz Leiber, Ramsey Campbell, Charles L. Grant, and Manly Wade Wellman).

But some of the most fun in this hefty tome comes from the imaginative universes of writers whose names you're unlikely to encounter except in the most thorough of horror surveys: Chet Williamson, Frances Garfield, William F. Nolan, Joe R. Lansdale, Donald A. Wolheim, Bill Pronzini, Barry M. Walzburg, and Sarrantonio himself. Their brutal, vicious, and shockingly imaginative horror fiction serve as a psychedelic counterpoint to the stately self-control of the Victorian classics beside them. If you only read one book on this list, this mixture of masterworks and hidden gems will serve as a stalwart introduction to the genre.



- Ed. / Ill. BARRY MOSER

Few books have haunted me like this one. Short (only 13 tales included) but brilliantly edited, it only has room for the most troubling, lingering, and imaginative of ghost stories. They could easily be cataloged into three columns: heavy-hitting horror classics ("The Judge's House," "Man-Size in Marble," "The Music of Erich Zann," and "The Monkey's Paw") postmodern ghost stories (almost exclusively tales of quiet melancholy and existential unease from the pens of Joyce Carroll Oates, James Haskins, Madeline L'Engle, and Philippa Pearce), and rarely-read gems (Middleton's "The Ghost Ship," Catherine Wells' "The Ghost," and a retelling of "Polly Vaughan").

Some might balk at this anthology because it contains overly-anthologized pieces, and because of its shortness, but I read it every year (I first read it during my study halls as a 13 year old) because its dedication to pathos and spiritual anxiety makes it one of the most expertly selected little books that I know of. One of only three illustrated books in this list, its realistic water colors eschew fantasy for emotion, lingering in the imagination with their lack of pretension or dramatics. It's central thread is one of sweet sadness and cosmic despair -- tones that we often neglect in our age of body horror, sexual violence, and gross-outs. Gentle, lonely, and crushing, its soft ghost stories (booby-trapped with three truly terrifying masterworks) will leave you thinking and wondering days after you've put it back on the shelf. These are stories that end with sighs...





The creme-de-la-creme. The king of anthologies. The model which I have shamelessly copied as the prototype of Oldstyle Tales. Henry Mazzeo's "Hauntings" first came to me when I was scouring my local library for ghost lore at the age of eleven. It was my first introduction to literary ghost stories (I had been on the hunt for "true" ghost stories, but was far from disappointed). If you haven't yet been introduced to the great ghost story writers of the first half of the 20th century -- M. R. James, Manly Wade Wellman, William Hope Hodgson, J. B. Priestley, Alfred Noyes, E. F. Benson, H. R. Wakefield, Robert Aickman, H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Robert Bloch, John Collier, etc. -- this is a primer which introduce you to the who's who of pre-war supernatural fiction. The Great Ones.

Also included are some tales from Late Victorian masters, each featuring an ingeniously memorable bogey: Margaret Oliphant's mournful ghost-child, Arthur Conan Doyle's murderous mummy, H. G. Wells' body-hijacking demon, and the world-weary, rent-collecting haunter of Henry James. Bolstered with wistful illustrations from the courtly hand of Edward Gorey, the book begins and ends each story with commentary from Mazzeo (a touch that I have included in all of our annotated books), giving it a conversational tone that feels like a guided tour through a museum of great ghost stories. If you like supernatural fiction but don't know where to start, here is a book dominated by the greats: each name deserves individual study and each author offers up a chilling sacrifice of well-controlled, beautifully written horror. It is the crown of my collection, and I hope it finds its way in your hands too.

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