Halloween Reading List

A short guide from our contributors on what to read this Halloween.

Luc Sante on H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft was a nerd. He was a nerd on a grand scale, though—a heroic nerd, a pallid, translucent, Mallarméan nerd, a nerd who suffered for his art. His art consisted exclusively of conveying horror, and in this his range was encyclopedic. As a setting for his horror he built a whole world—a whole universe, with a time-span measured in eons—which others could happily continue furnishing indefinitely. His horrors themselves are, with a few unhappy exceptions, described loosely and suggestively enough that in effect they present a blank screen on which the reader can project whatever visual imagery is most personally unsettling. This explains the seeming paradox of an exceedingly bookish writer enjoying a legacy that is to a very large degree extraliterary. As a supplier of instruments for the cultivation of horror he was custom-tailored for the suggestible fourteen-year-old boy, and the number of fourteen-year-old boys—some of them chronologically rather older, a few of them even female—is continually on the increase.

– Luc Sante, “The Heroic Nerd”

Michael Wood on Stephen King

The most urgent question of the horror genre as Stephen King practices it is this: What difference does the supernatural or fanciful element make, whether it’s telekinesis or death-in-life? What if it’s only a lurid metaphor for what’s already there?

– Michael Wood, “The Horror of Horrors”

Michael Dirda on Ambrose Bierce

As the author of supernatural tales himself, particularly of those with a distinctly visceral gruesomeness, Ambrose Bierce stands as the major American figure between Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. (The only rival claimant, Fitz James O’Brien, author of “The Diamond Lens,” “What Was It?,” and “The Wondersmith,” was killed in 1862 during the Civil War.) Bierce had no use for the refined eeriness of the English-style ghost stories of Henry James and Edith Wharton, and instead preferred a kind of Yankee Grand Guignol, setting his haunting descriptions of fateful coincidence and horrific revelation in uncut forests and abandoned mining towns, or turning out deliciously tasteless tall tales that recall the black-humored excesses of Kind Hearts and Coronets or the novels of Bret Easton Ellis.

– Michael Dirda, “One of America’s Best”

Edward Gorey’s favorites

The Haunted Looking Glass is the late Edward Gorey’s selection of his favorite tales of ghosts, ghouls, and grisly goings-on. It includes stories by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, M. R. James, W. W. Jacobs, and L. P. Hartley, among other masters of the fine art of making the flesh creep, all accompanied by Gorey’s inimitable illustrations.

– Edward Gorey, The Haunted Looking Glass

John Banville on Ghost Stories

The best ghost stories, of course, are those wherein we detect the movement of real fear, real pain, real loss. A.S. Byatt’s “The July Ghost,” in which a lodger is visited by the ghost of his landlady’s young son, who died in a traffic accident, coruscates with the anguish of the bereaved woman who herself is not allowed to see the elfin child. This is not a ghost story in the way that, for instance, M.R. James’s heartless anecdotes are. Byatt is writing not about death but life, its difficulty, its sorrows, its unfairness. John Cheever, also, in the marvelous “Torch Song,” fixes his narrative firmly in the land of the living, where Death comes in the form of “a big, handsome girl” from Ohio called Joan. The skill with which Cheever gradually darkens his at first brightly lit story with repeated morbid touches is remarkable. The horror is there from the start, though so breezily expressed that we do not notice it:

After Jack Lorey had known Joan Harris in New York for a few years, he began to think of her as the Widow. She always wore black, and he was always given the feeling, by a curious disorder in her apartment, that the undertakers had just left. This impression did not stem from malice on his part, for he was fond of Joan.

– John Banville, “The Un-Heimlich Maneuver”

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