Friday, October 16, 2009

The Monkey Reads: Mr. Gorey Presents

The Haunted Looking Glass: Ghost Stories Chosen by Edward Gorey
Various Authors
(New York Review Books Classics)
Even if the reader has previously encountered some of these 12 supernatural tales, the collection is well worth a look. The late Edward Gorey -- an illustrator, writer and critic with a gift for the comically macabre -- selected well when he assembled this line-up of short stories.

Most of the stories come from the Victorian era, a boom time for horror writing in England and the United States, as the Industrial Age was steamrolling magic and wonder out of day-to-day existence. Consequently, a good number of the authors pit logic and reason against events that defy any sort of explanation or scientific confinement -- a horror fiction trope that still has plenty of tread left on it.

Gorey's good choices include some literary giants. Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker offer, respectively, "The Body-Snatcher" and "The Judge's House." And Charles Dickens surprises everyone with his perfectly readable and uncharacteristically efficient "The Signalman."

But it's the lesser-known writers, some of them icons to fans of Victorian horror, that deliver some of the best scares in Looking Glass. Algernon Blackwood's "The Empty House" is the rare haunted house yarn that hits all the expected notes without feeling clich├ęd.

L.P. Hartley's "A Visitor from Down Under" uses flashbacks and meticulous pacing to set up a genuinely creepy tale of revenge from beyond the grave. And W.W. Jacobs' frequently imitated and referenced "The Monkey's Paw" should compel the reader to seek out more of his bleak but comical work.

And if you've seen the excellent Jacques Tourneur film Night of the Demon, then you're already familiar with the story it's based on, "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James. The film is good, the story is excellent and closes this collection on the highest note possible. Can a torn up piece of parchment terrify? Yes. Yes it can.

Reference material: If 100-year-old horror writing is new to you, there's no better place to start than The Haunted Looking Glass. J. Sheridan LeFanu isn't included here, but the Irish writer is a pre-Victorian horror superstar and worth your attention. And Dover Thrift Editions offer numerous cheap collections of classic horror writing.