I really wasn't going to do another Halloween list this year. It all started when Maud Newton asked me for a list of Halloween reading
a few years ago, and then I did a couple more lists
on my own, in 2008 and 2009. Lately, of course, as the handful of you who still come here know, I've been pretty much AWOL, blogwise. But then a friend of mine
hinted that maybe I should do another one, and since I'm easily suggestible, and I had a little time on my hands, here it is.
I'm also, however, lazy. I don't keep up with contemporary horror fiction as a rule—well, not at all, to be honest—and if you look at the stuff I've written about in the past, hardly any of it dates from any later than 1970 or so. Which means that, up until now, I've basically been trawling the depths of my adolescent reading, so that this year it was either a) read some new stuff, or b) start digging around in my dusty old paperbacks for stories I didn't remember the last two times around. But since, as I say, I'm lazy, and since a middle-aged midlist novelist wants nothing more than to prove how au courant he is, I decided instead to go straight to YouTube (au courant, that is, circa 2005).
Each of these entries (except the Disney and Tim Burton ones) has a direct literary antecedent, so that, by the skin of my teeth, I'm clinging to conceit that this is a literary list, and that Cultwriter is still a literary blog. But lest you think I'm doing a half-assed job here—to be fair to myself, I think it's at least a three-quarter-assed job—bear in mind that everything here (with the exception of the Tim Burton clip) is something I remember from my dank, gloomy, melancholy, Halloweenish adolescence, and is submitted here—as Rod Serling, another ancient influence, might say—for your approval. Happy Halloween!
1. "The Golden Arm," by Mark Twain.
This story, which is not original to Twain, appears as an example in his essay "How to Tell a Story."
It is (fair warning) a "negro" dialect story, but in the hands of the right storyteller, it's lots of fun, and genuinely spooky. Ideally, you need to hear it live and in person, and probably from Mark Twain himself, who used to include it in his lecture tours. But since that's not possible (so far as I know—it is Halloween, after all), the next best thing is to hear it told by the great Hal Holbrook
, during the course of his epic one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight
. It's a testament to Holbrook's performance that I still remember this story vividly, having seen it only once before, when Mark Twain Tonight
was televised in 1967, when I was 12 years old. I've only just watched it again today for the first time in (ulp!) 43 years, and it's even better than I remembered it. Somehow, copyright be damned, the entire TV production of Mark Twain Tonight
has ended up on YouTube, and "The Golden Arm" starts at 5:04 in part 8, continuing into part 9.
This is another classic American oral story
(essentially the same story as "The Golden Arm," in fact), in a version by some film students from the University of Georgia. I first heard it, live, during a one-man show performed by a touring actor whose name I no longer remember, who did a Holbrookish one-man show of American folk tales at the college where my father taught, Ferris State College in Big Rapids, Michigan, sometime in the late 60s. Whoever he was (and I'm truly sorry I don't remember his name), he put on a great show, and despite my only ever having heard it once, I remember the story in every detail more than 40 years later. In fact, I used to tell it myself (and pretty well, if I do say so myself), when I was a young man, and when I could get my friends to sit still and be quiet for it. Again, like the Twain story, it doesn't work quite as well on screen as it does on person, so I suggest doing what I did, namely, learning it and trying it out yourself on a willing audience, and see what kind of reaction you get
3. "The Raven," by Edgar Allan Poe. "The Raven,"
read by Christopher Walken. Nuff said.
4. "Night on Bald Mountain," from Walt Disney's Fantasia.
This is still one of the spookiest things I've ever seen, the last great effort from the golden age of Disney animation, before the company entered that long, anodyne period in the 50s and 60s when it was afraid to frighten or disturb anybody. Unlike "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence in the same film, there's nothing jokey or cute about this: it's pure nightmare stuff, with a demon of (literally) mountainous proportions summoning ghosts from their graves, calling out demons and harpies, and casting damned souls into the fires of Hell (which is kinda like actually working for Disney, or so I'm told). Not only is there genuine terror and some rather European grotesquerie in this piece, there's also a perverse eroticism that appears nowhere else in the Disney canon (unless you count Britney Spears on The New Mickey Mouse Club
, or certain Haley Mills movies). Naked women are summoned out of flame, and nude harpies with deathly pale skin and shocking pink nipples rush right at the camera. The demon himself has a raw erotic power as well, and I'm about 90 percent certain that he scared the crap out of a young Peter Jackson, who grew up to recast him as the Balrog in Lord of the Rings
. And all of it set, of course, to the witches' sabbath music
of Modest Mussorgsky
, conducted by Leopold Stokowski
5. "Vincent," by Tim Burton.
This is the ur-text of the entire Tim Burton canon
, his first short film, made when he still working (unhappily, see above) for Disney. In seven and a half minutes you can see, in embryo, nearly every obsession, trope, and idiosyncracy that Burton would display in later films—with more time and bigger budgets, but not always as effectively as here. Already it expresses, fully formed, the jokey-macabre sensibility that would inform not only Burton's work, but the work of a generation of filmmakers since. Still, after all these years, Burton's one of the few who can get the balance between jokes and creepiness just right, and it's pitch perfect here, aided immeasurably by the voice of the late, great Vincent Price himself.
6. "Whistle and I'll Come to You," by Jonathan Miller.
This is the only film version I know of "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad,"
greatest story by M. R. James
, the greatest ghost story writer in the English language. The film was made in 1968 by the polymath writer, actor, director, and physician Jonathan Miller
, best known as a member of the Beyond the Fringe
comedy troupe. It's a fairly faithful adaptation, with one serious quibble: Miller insists on making the ending more psychological, in the manner of a Henry James ghost story, instead sticking to the unambiguous, uninflected ghostliness of M. R. James's original, which works better. That said, this little film is extremely well made and well worth watching, for two things in particular: the wonderfully spooky black-and-white cinematography by Dick Bush, and the perfectly twitchy central performance by the great English actor Michael Hordern
. And PS, Shameless Plug Division: I stole the climax of James's original story for a moment in the final novella in my book Publish and Perish
, "Casting the Runes,"
which is a retelling of M. R. James's short story of the same name (which, if you're keeping score, is his best
There you go, this year's Halloween list, a multimedia, interactive lollapalooza. I see by looking back at last year's list that I was already beginning to whine about writing these things, that I had no intention even then of doing one every year. And I still don't. Really. So don't expect one next year. I mean it.
So, once again, until next year--d'oh!—Happy Halloween!
I'm a small town boy. I was born in Lansing, Michigan, which is not small, but from the age of six, I grew up in Big Rapids, a small, mid-Michigan college town. Most of my memories of growing up there are pleasant, but it was also in Big Rapids that I learned to love scary stories. I probably checked out every ghost story anthology there was in the Big Rapids Public Library, and whenever I think of Halloween, the first memory that comes to mind, the baseline of every spooky mood I've ever felt, is the image of the ten-year-old me walking home from the library on a gloomy October Saturday afternoon, kicking through the fallen leaves on the sidewalk, under an overcast sky. I've already got my nose in the book I just checked out—an old, fat hardback with a crinkling plastic cover—and I'm wearing my fall jacket against a northern wind that already has the slight sting of winter in it, and that rattles the red and orange leaves of the maples overhead. I can smell the sharp aroma of the fallen leaves and the mustiness of the book, and I know without thinking about it that if I just walk slow enough, I can finish the first story in the book by time I get home.
Ohhhh-kay. With that egregiously sentimental intro, I bring you my brand new list of Halloween stories for 2009. I really hadn't planned on making this an annual event. I did a list a few years back for Maud Newton
, and then I did my own list last year
. I wasn't going to do one this year—it seemed like too much work—but then, over the weekend, it was actually kind of rainy and cold and gloomy for Austin, Texas, and I caught the old seasonal mood. Not only that, but this year it's a themed list, in honor of my small-town, Bradburyian roots: a collection of scary stories, novels, and films that have something to do with small-town life.
Some of them are supernatural stories, but some of them are not. Some are classically paranoid, from the-small-town-with-a-terrible-secret genre, while others are just horror stories that happen to be set in a small town. Some of them are actually about the nature of small-town life—namely, the potential creepiness of close-knit communities, and what the members of those communities know, think they know, and actually don't know, about their neighbors—while others derive their spookiness from the simple idea of isolation and remoteness. Still others are about the ease with which a small community can be corrupted or destroyed by outsiders, or even by a strong-willed native.
Some of the entries are kind of a stretch, theme-wise, and some of them are rather obscure, and maybe even impossible to find. I've also tried not to repeat entries I used in earlier list (so I'm not including Salem's Lot
or "It's a Good
Life") (except that I just kinda did). But all of them evoke in me, to varying degrees, the pleasant thrill of those gloomy Saturday afternoons back in Big Rapids, in the weeks before Halloween.
1) "Young Goodman Brown,"
by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The ur-text (American apocalyptic allegory division) of the creepy small-town story: it's set in Salem, Massachusetts, it starts at sunset, and by the end, young Goodman Brown has found out all sorts of things about his neighbors, and even his wife, that he'd rather not have known. Oh, and it's got the Devil in it, too.
2) "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson
. Another ur-text—American, apocalyptic, allegorical. You know it, you love it, and no matter how many times I read it, it always—always—creeps me out.
3) "The Dunwich Horror
," by H. P. Lovecraft, who of course wrote a number of stories set in gothicky small towns in Rhode Island and western Massachusetts, this one being the most famous. Though I'm sure he wasn't thinking of it (Lovecraft not being known for his ideological bent), this one plays on Marx's idea of the "idiocy of rural life," through his evocation of the reclusive, inbred, white-trashy Whately family, who just happen to have been (how shall I put this?) intimate with godlike, malodorous, tentacled demons from another dimension. Just like some of the folks I knew in Big Rapids, in other words.
4) Dr. Cook's Garden
, by Ira Levin
. Most people know of Levin's work through the film versions of his novels Rosemary's Baby
and The Stepford Wives
(both of which are well worth reading in their own right), but he was also a successful playwright. This one is about a seemingly kindly doctor in a seemingly idyllic New England town who takes a very hands-on approach to social engineering. You can buy the play, cheap, if you click on the link above, but I know it from a 1971 TV film
starring, of all people, Bing Crosby as Dr. Cook. Bearing in mind that I haven't seen it in nearly 40 years, I have very fond memories of the film, and recall that Crosby was very chilling in the part. It's completely unavailable on DVD or even VHS, as far as I can tell, which is a shame, because after seeing it, I've never heard "White Christmas" or "In the Blue, Blue, Blue of the Evening" quite the same way again.
5) Harvest Home
, by Thomas Tryon
. Speaking of narratives about seemingly idyllic New England small towns, this novel scarred me for life; my own novella "99" is basically a riff on Tryon's book. Tryon was B-list Hollywood actor for about fifteen years, before giving up to write novels. In most cases, turning to novel-writing to make money isn't a smart career move (take it from me), but in Tryon's case, it paid off. Several of his books were bestsellers, and two of them, The Other
and Harvest Home
, are bona fide horror classics. It's out of print, apparently (are you listening, New York Review Books?), but click on the Amazon link above, and you can find cheap used paperback copies.
6) Something Wicked This Way Comes
, by Ray Bradbury. How could I do a list of small-town horror and not include this? I must have read it half a dozen times before the age of twelve. I've read it since, and while the writing strikes me now as, erm, a little mannered, once I give in to it, it's still a very creepy little novel, with the added attraction of being set closer to my own experience, i.e., in a small, midwestern town. And in this one, the darkness isn't homegrown, but comes from without, from an evil circus. And who doesn't love an evil circus?
7) Vampire Circus
. And since one evil circus deserves another, here's my favorite Hammer Film. It was made in 1972, during the era when Hammer's films were getting more lurid—more blood, more breasts—and this one certainly fits the bill. It's also cheap-looking and rather clumsily put together, but it has a raw power to it, and it is, in the phrase of that noted vampire aficianado, John Marks
, a very dank
movie. It is, alas, not available in a Region 1 DVD, but if you live in or near Austin, Vulcan Video has a blurry old VHS tape of it which I watch every year.
8) The Heart of a Witch
, by Judith Hawkes
. Between 1989 and 1999, Judith Hawkes published three first-rate supernatural novels: Julian's House
, which for my money is one of the best novel-length ghost stories ever written, My Soul to Keep
, which is nearly as good, and this one, a sympathetic portrait of a Wiccan coven in a small town in upstate New York. It's got loads of small-town atmosphere, lots of spooky magic, and a truly heartbreaking ending. It's an indication of the book's idiosyncratic appeal that, from its Amazon page, you can buy used copies for a penny, but a new copy for nearly a hundred bucks. And, for what it's worth, it's got 49 reader reviews, most of them five-star raves, and many of them by practicing Wiccans.
9) The Land of Laughs
, by Jonathan Carroll
, who really is
a cult writer, and doesn't just call himself one, like I do. He's already published seventeen books, but this is his first one, in which a writer travels to a small Missouri town to write a biography of his favorite children's book author, and discovers that the writer and the town have...wait for it...a terrible secret. A beautifully written and genuinely haunting book.
10) The Midwich Cuckoos
, by John Wyndham
, the great British sci-fi author. It's is a combination of small-town apocalypse with Cold War paranoia: women in an English village are impregnated by aliens, and the resulting children turn out to be unusually creepy, even by hybrid alien baby standards. Brian Aldiss once dismissed Wyndham for his "cosy catastrophes," but it's Wyndham's narrow focus, quotidian detail, and sharp characterizations that make his books so unsettling. Same with the two films of the book: made twice as Village of the Damned
, the first version
, with George Sanders, is the best, one of those low-budget, black-and-white British thrillers of the late 50s and early 60s that is all the more effective for being so tight and economical. Unlike your modern, over-the-top alien invasion blockbuster, with massive CGI explosions and nameless CGI extras being flung through the air, this one evokes the feel of coming face to face with an implacable enemy in your own yard.
So, there it is. As you wander the leafy streets of your own small town this holiday season, or just imagine you do, bear in mind that under those rustling, autumnal maples and behind the solid doors of those snug woodframe houses lurk sinners of every description, not to mention the Old Ones, matriarchal corn cultists, Wiccans, and alien children. If your doctor wants to give you an flu injection, you might think twice if he looks anything like Bing Crosby. And if the circus comes to your town this month, take my advice and stay home.
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!