It's Halloween again, my favorite holiday, and I'm trying to get in the mood, despite the fact that the scariest thing I can think of right now is Sarah Palin being elected to...well, anything, really. But I'm going to soldier on, in the spirit of the season. I thought I'd do a new version of the list of Halloween reading I did a couple of years ago for Maud Newton (which had some movies on it, too); at the time I told her that it was a pretty arbitrary list, that if she'd asked me on a different day, I'd probably do a completely different list. Well, it's a different day, so here's a different list.
I toyed with the idea of making this new effort a themed list: short stories that had been adapted for the Twilight Zone, or stories that had been published in the New Yorker, from the days when the magazine used to publish macabre stories by writers like John Collier and Roald Dahl, or stories from the Alfred Hitchcock anthologies I loved as a kid, which were my gateway drug, the very books that hooked me on horror even before I discovered M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and H. P. Lovecraft. But rather than limit myself to one of these themes, I've done a sort of mash-up of them all. Not all of them are ghost stories, some of them are borderline science fiction, and some of them are more unsettling than they are flat-out scary. Their one commonality, in fact, is that most of them are dark and melancholy rather than gut-wrenching in the manner of a contemporary torture porn or J-horror film.
The other commonality, I suppose, is nostalgia. Most of the following stories are from my favorite Hitchcock anthology, Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night, or from an anthology Ray Bradbury put together in 1952, with the deeply misleading title Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow. (I was afraid both of them might be hard to come by, but you can find the Hitchcock for as cheap as a buck at AbeBooks; the Bradbury isn't hard to find, either.) I read both of these books, over and over again, in my childhood, in the mid-to-late 60s. In the introduction to Bradbury's book (which is still one of my favorite anthologies of the macabre), he writes, "many of the stories in this collection, directly or indirectly, will prove once again the essential mystery in everything, no matter what or how we know it. Scientists freely admit that they don't really know what electricity or gravity are, or why light rays travel as fast as they do, or what color is or what keeps the atom together or why the sun really shines. In all probability they won't ever know, for there is a certain place in any discussion of any one thing in existence where knowledge ends and the Great Vacuum extends on out into infinity."
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen—a bit of scripture for Samhain, when the membrane between daylight reality and the Great Vacuum gets porous. Some of the following stories may be hard to find, unless you have access to the same crumbling paperbacks I do, but some of them are pretty widely available. Here they are, my 2008 list of Halloween stories:
1) "It's a Good Life," by Jerome Bixby, who was also a screenwriter and TV writer, best known for a couple of good Star Trek episodes. Most people know this story from its superb Twilight Zone adaptation, starring a very young, very scary Billy Mumy. The story itself is a nasty slice of small-town gothic Americana, with a brilliantly bone-chilling sci-fi twist. It's still widely anthologized, I think, but I first read it in the Hitchcock anthology.
2) "Evening Primrose," by John Collier. Another great story from the Hitchcock anthology, which was filmed as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This is the one about the secret society of people who live in a department store and who only come out at night. You'll never look at a mannequin the same way again. Collier was a British writer who today is best known for the diamond-hard and wittily cruel stories of the fantastic he wrote for the New Yorker; his anthology Fancies and Goodnights (which includes this story) is still in print (hooray for New York Review Books!).
3) "The Hour After Westerly," by Robert M. Coates, from the Bradbury anthology. This is one of the most unsettling stories I've ever read, and I'm not entirely sure why. It's not overtly supernatural—it's a very subtle riff on deja vu, basically—but I've remembered it for years, and even though I've read it half a dozen times over the years, I'm not sure I could explain how it works. But its effect (on me, anyway) is like opening a very familiar door and discovering that it leads someplace entirely new—a feeling that's both mysterious and melancholy. Not matter how many times I read it, it always gets to me. Until about ten minutes ago, I knew nothing about Coates, but (hooray for Wikipedia!) it turns out he was the author of three experimental novels and the New Yorker's art critic—he coined the term "abstract expressionism." If you can't turn up a copy of Timeless Stories, and you happen to have the complete run of the New Yorker on CD-ROM or whatever, it appeared in the issue of November 1, 1947.
4) "The Daemon Lover," by Shirley Jackson. Another story I first read in the Bradbury anthology. It didn't really stick with me as a kid, but when I reread it in Jackson's own collection, The Lottery and Other Stories, it creeped me out. You have to be an adult, and to have had your heart broken, to be scared by this story.
5) "The Demon Lover," by Elizabeth Bowen. A haunted house story from the great Anglo-Irish novelist. I first read it in her collected stories, but you can also find it in Brad Leithauser's fine anthology, The Norton Book of Ghost Stories, where he also includes two more Bowen ghost stories. Once upon a time, a lot of first-rate literary writers regularly wrote ghost stories—Henry James and Edith Wharton are the most obvious examples—but you don't see a lot of modern writers trying their hand at it. Or maybe they do, and I just haven't been paying attention.
6) "The Man Who Liked Dickens," by Evelyn Waugh. Not a supernatural story, but horrifying in the manner of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," on which it is a very witty, and very cruel, variation. The story is a slightly different version of the penultimate chapter of Waugh's novel A Handful of Dust, and I first read it in the Hitchcock book.
7) "The Small Assassin," by Ray Bradbury. When I was a kid reading Bradbury's science fiction, a colleague of my father's at Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Michigan, where I grew up, suggested that I get a copy of Bradbury's The October Country, which he said was better than Bradbury's sci fi. It's a revised version of his first book, Dark Carnival, which was first published by August Derleth's Arkham House (best known for keeping Lovecraft's reputation alive). Bradbury writes in his introduction that the stories in the book present a side to him most of his readers don't know, and a sort of story—i.e., horror—which he had rarely written since 1946. There's some really creepy stuff here, but this one is my favorite. If you have young children, you may want to avoid it. Then again, maybe you won't.
8) "La Grande Breteche," Honore de Balzac. I'm detecting another theme here, but I can't say why without giving away the story. This one comes from another classic anthology I practically lived in as a melancholy kid, Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a big fat Modern Library book I took out of the Big Rapids Library again and again and again. It's still in print, in a very handsome edition, and I have my own copy now. It's pure nostalgia, the book where I first read stories by M. R. James, Saki, Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H. P. Lovecraft, not to mention the first place I ever read Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" and Hemingway's "The Killers," which the editors included in the Tales of Terror section of the book.
9) "The Willows," by Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood wrote a number of stories that evoked the mystery of the natural world in a rather sinister way, and this is the most famous one. Don't read it on a canoe trip, is my advice. Another good one, though harder to find, is "The Man Whom the Trees Loved." You can find "The Willows" here and here.
10) "The July Ghost," by A. S. Byatt. This is the newest story in this list—it was published in 1987—and the only one not to come from one of the ancient anthologies of my youth. But it's also one of the best ghost stories I've ever read, and widely anthologized; I have it in several different volumes, including the Leithauser anthology. It's also, if you know anything about A. S. Byatt's personal history, almost unbearably poignant.
So there you go—a list of Halloween reading heavy on the melancholy, with a chaser of poignancy. Perhaps that's how the holiday strikes me at middle-age—what seemed like wicked good fun when I was a kid is now yet another reminder of my mortality. Trust me, Halloween only gets scarier as you get older, as that membrane between the living and the dead only gets more porous. Someday, if I keep doing this blog, you may even get a reading list...from beyond!