The Halloween 2020 Book List

A Canadian Adaptation of LeFanu’s Carmilla (2017)

Every October, I usually read several novels and short stories in the horror genre. I do not care that much for the current stuff, like Stephen King or Dean Koontz. My preference is for the classics, and those tend to be concentrated in the late 19th century.

The books I read this month were:

  • Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales
  • Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which included the short novels Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant
  • Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, a new collection edited by Aaron Worthy

Shirley Jackson is most famous for her short story “The Lottery,” but she also wrote such novels as We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House.

Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873) was an Irish author who wrote some classic tales of horror, especially Carmilla, a tale of a lesbian vampire who predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by some twenty years. In 1960, it was made into a film by Roger Vadim entitled Blood and Roses (in France: Et mourir de plaisir). At the time I attended college, it was the most popular film showed by the Dartmouth Film Society.

Welsh Horror Tale Author Arthur Machen

Finally, there was a delightful collection of novellas and tales by Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Most of Machen’s best work was composed up to the late 1920s and included the classic The Great God Pan (1894), which tells of what happened when a young woman who, upon being exposed to the Greek god Pan, created a trail of destruction that spanned several continents.

Strange Joy

Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!

Be Afraid! Be Very Afraid!

Every October, in honor of Halloween, I love to read classic horror stories. This last week, I read Hugh Lamb’s Dover collection of rare finds entitled A Bottomless Grave and Other Victorian Tales of Terror. Last year at this time, I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but this year I ventured on Shirley Jackson’s other famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which is equally spellbinding. (What I do not bother to read are the Stephen King and Dean Koontz type of novels that go in strictly for crude shocks.)

Usually, haunted house novels like to go in for crude effects. In contrast Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is delicately nuanced. Does this haunted house really do any damage with all its noise and strange writing on the walls and apparent destruction of one lady’s wardrobe? Actually, it does only one thing: It recognizes in Eleanor Vance, a spinster who is one of the party investigating the house, a kindred spirit. And it wants her. Badly.

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

Shirley Jackson (1916-1965)

The real terror is not external, it resides within the human breast. Eleanor had spent her adult life as a nursemaid to her mother, who has died before the action of the story begins. She has, as the saying goes, no life of her own. The one line that keeps running through her mind during the course of the book is, “Journeys end in lovers meeting.”

For Shirley Jackson to see into the tortured heart of Eleanor Vance—and through all the flummery of haunted houses and planchettes—makes her one of the great writers of horror fiction. And this after Eleanor’s initial response to the house, which is one of horror and loathing. At the risk of giving the whole shooting match away, I will continue the quote that ends the last paragraph:

Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.

This book deserves on the same shelf with that other great psychological story of haunting, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

Merricat Introduces Herself

The Opening Lines of the Book

The Opening Lines of the Book

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am 18 years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.—Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The Power of Magical Thinking

Author Shirley Jackson

Author Shirley Jackson

As of two days ago, all I read of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) was a single short story, “The Lottery.” That should have told me something about the author, except it was so many decades ago that I read it. Then, last night I finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), a novel about a family in a small town that is hated by the townspeople because of a murder by poisoning that had taken place there six years before.

The inhabitants of the house include Constance and Merricat (Mary Katherine) Blackwood, and their aging Uncle Julian, who is in a wheelchair. It was the 29-year-old Constance who was suspected of poisoning her mother and father by adding arsenic to the sugar. She was tried and acquitted for lack of evidence. The mutual suspicions remaining after the trial have isolated the Blackwoods in their old gothic house: Only Merricat goes into town twice a week to do the grocery shopping. Although the townspeople are presented as curious and mostly hateful, the Blackwoods themselves live a serene life—until something happens to disturb their peace.

That something is the arrival of Charlie Blackwood, their cousin, who has eyes on Constance and what he imagines is the family money. There quickly develops a mutual animosity between Merricat and Charlie. Here is what the former thinks:

I was thinking of Charles. I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.

A Book Worth Reading

A Book Worth Reading

As much as she would like to be able to do these things, Merricat has no supernatural powers. (If she did, no one would be safe.) But she decides that a particular day would be the last day of Charlie’s unwelcome visit. At that point, all hell breaks loose. I will not divulge the ending, which is strange and curiously satisfying, but I will add Shirley Jackson to the list of horror story authors I discussed in my post of two days ago entitled Thirteen More Horrors.

In addition to “The Lottery” and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House. I highly recommend that you give her work a try.