In mid-October, readers shift gears. The summer romance novels, lighthearted mysteries and trendy best-sellers are reshelved or boxed up. With Halloween approaching, we long instead for chills and shivers, for favorite ghost stories and frightful tales, old and new.
Consider, for instance, “Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Stories,” by Ray Russell (Penguin, paperback), which highlights the well-known trio “Sardonicus,” “Sagittarius” and “Sanguinarius.” In the first, we encounter a mysterious nobleman with a horrifying rictus; the second begins, “ ‘If Mr. Hyde had sired a son,’ said Lord Terry, ‘do you realize that the loathsome child could be alive at this moment?’ ” In his introduction, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro cites Stephen King, who declared “Sardonicus” the “finest example of the modern Gothic ever written.”
Valancourt Books, located in Richmond, specializes in reissuing neglected works of horror and suspense. To its already impressive list (400 titles!), publishers James D. Jenkins and Ryan Cagle recently added “The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories,” including some choice weirds by modern writers, such as John Blackburn and Michael McDowell, along with lesser-known gems by Hugh Walpole, Charles Birkin and Florence Marryat, this last now chiefly remembered for her novel “The Blood of the Vampire,” which appeared the same year — 1897 — as “Dracula” and Richard Marsh’s equally scary “The Beetle.”
R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker are not only the proprietors of England’s much-admired Tartarus Press, but also accomplished practitioners of the eerie tale. Russell’s new novella, “The Stones Are Singing,” (PS Publishing) is set in Venice, always redolent of decay and mystery. One March morning the owner of an apartment overlooking a minor canal discovers a cheap leather jacket draped over the railing of his balcony. How did it get there? Parker’s story collection, “Damage,”(PS Publishing) ranges in subject matter from selkies to rock stars to strange rituals among a group of bird-watchers. You can learn more about these two titles from the authors’ atmospheric book trailers on YouTube.
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As it happens, Parker’s “Homecraft” is among the stories featured in Swan River Press’ two-volume collection “Uncertainties,” edited by Brian J. Showers. Remarkably varied in its contents, this anthology — featuring Mark Valentine, Sarah LeFanu and John Howard, among others just as distinguished — recognizes that the uncanny reveals, and revels in, some fundamental disruption of our received worldview. Other Swan River titles this year include “The Pale Brown Thing,” the original novella version of Fritz Leiber’s fantasy masterpiece, “Our Lady of Darkness”; Lynda E. Rucker’s “You’ll Know When You Get There,” which features the mash-up story title, “The Queen in the Yellow Wallpaper”; and “Earth-Bound and Other Supernatural Tales” by Dorothy Macardle, best known for her novel “Uneasy Freehold,” which was made into the classic horror film “The Uninvited.”
In the United States, the most ambitious small publisher devoted to genre fiction is Centipede Press. Typically packed with extras — introductions, illustrations, commentary — its reissues are sumptuous examples of bookmaking. This fall brings several treasures, including “Out of the Dark: A Storybook of Horrors,” by modern master Steve Rasnic Tem, as well as an indisputable contemporary classic, “The Land of Laughs,” signed by the author Jonathan Carroll and artists David Mattingly, Ryder Carroll and Michelle Lopes. But don’t gasp at the $85 price. Just to see a Centipede Book is to want to own it.
The Folio Society is probably the only “commercial” press that rivals Centipede in commissioning superb new art to illustrate its publications. You can certainly find cheaper editions of, say, J. Sheridan LeFanu’s sensational dark mystery “Uncle Silas,” but you won’t find any that are more attractive. Recent FS titles appropriate to this season of mists and melancholy include “The Folio Book of Ghost Stories,” edited by Kathryn Hughes and illustrated by David McConochie; Joan Aiken’s pseudo-Victorian children’s thriller; “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase,” introduced by Katherine Rundell and illustrated by Bill Bragg; and a spectacular edition of King’s terrifying family romance “The Shining,” with illustrations by Edward Kinsella.
Dover Books has long been an inexpensive purveyor of out-of-print genre literature. In “Homefront Horrors,” Jess Nevins — author of the awe-inspiring “Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana”— collects what he calls “Frights Away from the Front Lines, 1914-1918.” The stories range from Lord Dunsany’s characteristically delicious “Thirteen at Table” to Max Beerbohm’s deal-with-the devil classic, “Enoch Soames,” to Barry Pain’s under-anthologized “Not on the Passenger List.”
After enjoying these, you can jump ahead a century to Simon Strantzas’ and Michael Kelly’s “Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Volume Three” (Undertow), which gathers some of last year’s outstanding short work by Ramsey Campbell, D.P. Watt, Tim Lebbon and several young authors from horror’s new wave. Not least, “The Madness of Dr. Caligari,” edited by Joseph S. Pulver Sr. (Fedogan & Bremer), brings together shockers — by Gemma Files, Richard Gavin, Paul Tremblay, Michael Cisco and others — inspired by silent film’s expressionist masterpiece “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
Finally, don’t overlook a major work of biography and criticism. In “The Gothic Worlds of Peter Straub” (McFarland), professor of media studies John C. Tibbetts explores Straub’s fiction before and since “Ghost Story”; touches on his poetry, essays and editions of Robert Aickman, H.P. Lovecraft and “American Fantastic Tales”; and deftly tracks the life of this “Magellan of the Interior,” who for more than 40 years has been exploring the shadowy corners of the human heart. Tibbetts’ study, illustrated with photographs and drawings, is a must-read for any admirer of this restlessly protean man of letters.
Michael Dirda reviewed this book for The Washington Post.