I often receive requests to review active writers’ horror novels and anthologies, and it is always a pleasure to be asked, but I have rarely been quite so grateful to be asked as I was with Paul Draper’s recent anthology of dark fantasy, Black Gate Tales. In his bio, Draper lists his influences as Machen, Le Fanu, Lovecraft, Blackwood, Hodgson, and M. R. James, which obviously piqued my interest and – to a lesser degree – my skepticism. I rarely encounter modern horror which effectively weaves the disarming, subtle style of the Old Masters into their prose; usually – even with references to James or Machen – I find myself assaulted by zombie clowns, explicit scenes of tasteless sexual violence, and a posse of unrelatable, unlikable anti-heroes who seem more designed to attack the writer’s small town upbringing than to delve into the human experience with feeling and fear. In Paul Draper’s ingenious anthology I found quite the opposite. The stories are all delicate vignettes or cameos, almost flash fiction, which operate as a suite of works and collectively build up an unforgettable fog bank of artistic insinuations and implications which linger heavily in the mind days after the stories were read. But they are most remarkable for their raw and wistful pathos. These are not sentimental stories by any stretch of the imagination – Draper knows when and what to hold back, and he knows exactly what to show without becoming maudlin – but they are unquestionably emotional in a very quiet, pensive way that is the inspired product of 2020.
The stories themselves are misty visions of strange and often tragic events in the lonely lives of exceedingly normal people weighed down by distant burdens. They are almost never neatly wrapped up, and often end with open questions and possibilities that invite the reader to fill in the gaps. Death and mourning predominate them (in one, "The Under Tow," a wife and husband accidentally summon a tidal wave which briefly reunites them with the drowned corpse of their long-dead son; in another, "Mrs. Pendleton's Corpse," a gravedigger agrees to bury a witch’s talking corpse in a lonely wood, in exchange for an unspecified gift, while his own wife lies dying in bed; in a third, "With Love, A Meal," a woman cooks a meal and sets a table for her dead family while twilight and sorrow weigh her down). They are macabre but not grisly, dark but not dreadful, and call to mind the very best emotional instincts of the great writers of ghost stories. In fact, I wouldn’t stop with Machen, Le Fanu, et al: Draper has taken up the gauntlet dropped by the great Victorian ghost story writers – neglected masters of the richly emotional ghost story like Margaret Oliphant (“The Open Door”), Mrs. Craik (“The Last House in C— Street”), and Rhoda Broughton (“Poor Pretty Bobby”) with extremely strong touches of the Grand Triumvirate of the early supernatural tale: Edgar Allan Poe (“Hop-Frog,” “The Shadow,” “The Spectacles,” “The Oval Portrait”), Washington Irving (“The Adventure of My Uncle,” “The Adventure of the German Student,” “Don Juan: A Spectral Research”) and, especially, E. T. A. Hoffmann (“Councillor Krespel,” “The Empty House,” “The Lost Reflection,” “Automatons,” etc.).
Draper's twilit prose also carries on in the tradition of later Edwardian writers like F. Marion Crawford (“The Dead Smile,” “The Doll’s Ghost”), Oliver Onions (everything he ever wrote), Ralph Adams Cram (“The Dead Valley”), and Edith Wharton (“The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” “The Eyes”). Like all the writers and stories mentioned above, the “Black Gate Tales” are melancholy meditations on the hopes and fears of the human experience which reach a faltering hand out into a starless night sky unsure of what – if anything – it may find to cling to.
I have very little patience for cynical horror: it is cheap, unimaginative, and derivative. Innocence is invariably ravaged, authorities are unvaryingly corrupt, and heroes are perpetually world-weary misanthropes. We know the script and we are familiar with the ending. But this is hardly in the tradition of excellent horror. Even the great Ambrose Bierce, supposedly the cynic’s cynic, wove complex tales of emotional disappointment and existential despair which peered desperately out into the void in hope of spying something “beyond the wall.” When Lovecraft began the tradition of the truly cynical horror story, it was new and unusual, but for eighty years and on, our literary culture has hovered nervously around his bitter legacy, too afraid to step away from the comforting sense of self-importance and intelligence that cynicism provides (ironically, the cynics – who once lambasted the sentimentalists for cowering in the corner with comforting lies – are now the ones afraid to step out and explore deep, human emotion, spirituality, and loss). Draper is brave enough to explore these raw experiences but not naïve or witless enough to spoon feed us sentimental solutions to these experiences. His stories are deeply haunting in the best of ways: they linger and slowly evolve like the taste of an excellent cigar or fine whisky, growing and changing long after they have been imbibed. Hours and days later, the reader will find themselves returning to details from the vignettes, mulling them over and even dreaming about them. In fact, they all carry a somewhat dreamlike quality: a flash of action – the happenings of a mere moment or an hour – set in a vague, misty universe haunted by loss and darkened by rolling clouds of gloom. The stories are all delightfully brief, following Hemingway’s model of writing by showing everything that needs to be shown and nothing which is unwanted. Stylistically, in fact, they share a great deal with the American naturalists, especially Stephen Crane and Jack London, whose reporterly stories are centered around short, simple events and the richness of human psychology.
This being said, a fair warning: while many of these tales are wistful and haunting, they certainly have their grisly moments which will slack the thirst of any horror fan seeking the truly macabre. Among the more nightmarish episodes are the utterly queasy, arachnophobic "Snick" (which does M. R. James' "The Ash-Tree" proud), a blood-drenched elevator ride to who-knows-where ("Down. Down. It still travels.") in "The Aldwych Elevator," a killer marionette in "The Puppeteer of Prague" (a story with deep shades of Hoffmann that truly haunted my imagination), and the disarmingly named war story, "Ravens of Villers-Bretonneux," which reminds us why Poe chose the ominous black bird to represent the end of all things. Nightmarish and often utterly Kafkaesque, these ghostly worlds do not play around. I would also be remiss, as an illustrator myself, if I didn’t mention Philip Kingsbury’s elegant woodcut vignettes which are featured on the cover and with every story. I have always had a weakness for woodcuts as a medium for horror stories (they famously feature in S. E. Schlosser’s “Spooky [New England, Canada, Michigan, etc.]” series, done very cleverly by Paul G. Hoffman, and in Joseph A. Citro’s “Passing Strange”), and here they are perfect compliments to their subjects: rustic cameos, simple and clean, which zoom in on a single object or tableau from each story. Instead of painting a wide picture that clearly illustrates the setting, they hone in on a tiny detail and – like the stories themselves – leave the viewer fascinated by what is left out of the frame.
“Black Gate Tales” is the finest book of ghost stories that I have read in at least three years. In Draper’s own words, it is a collection of “dread, hope, death and wonder.” I couldn’t write a better summary if I tried for years, and I think it is with that last theme – wonder – that the stories carry their greatest weight. These are stories without answers and often without neatly-tied endings – stories that echo and reverberate with a ghostly energy leaving the reader standing at the door and looking out into a landscape of deepening twilight, wondering “What was that which I just saw?,” but never receiving an authoritative answer. They are prose poems rich in wonder and awe and the sublime, but weighed down and centered by a stony core of emotionally complex pathos that looms sadly over them like a silent, watchful idol. The mysteries of death, the wonders of the human spirit, and the metaphysical questions that bring both dark and light into the mortal soul make this collection both aesthetically and philosophically satisfying, but beware: it will not leave you alone once you have invited it inside.