Friday, October 31, 2014

BLOGtober Fest: Halloween Reading Tips from Edward Gorey

In 1959, Edward Gorey, surrealist, aesthete, and master of the unexplained and unexplainable, collected twelve of his favorite ghost stories for a volume called The Haunted Looking Glass. He had just left his job as art director for Anchor’s line of classic paperbacks, teaming with two others to republish a series of children’s works. In this short series, the Looking Glass Library, Gorey designed the covers for books like The Wizard of Oz and The War of the Worlds.

Though The Haunted Looking Glass does not contain a word written by Gorey, the entire book is nevertheless soaked through with Goreyness. The Edwardian rooms, the sudden visitations, the endings that don’t really end anything--one can recognize all these elements in classic Gorey works like The Doubtful Guest and The West Wing. Each story features a full-page illustration by Gorey in the style of his Anchor paperbacks. But perhaps most of all the reader benefits here from Gorey’s immense literary erudition. This was a man whose floors had begun to bow under the weight of his collected books. He is exactly the person you would want to ask, on a chill, October evening, on Halloween itself, “Do you know a good ghost story?”

The stories Gorey chose come mainly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in what critics have called the golden age of the ghost story. They are almost more English than scary, their effect having more to do with atmosphere than out-and-out terror and their atmosphere having a lot to do with damp streets and too-quaint villages. Anglophiles will smile at sentences like, “The rain kept up a steady patter on the glass roof of the coffee room.” Anyone looking for a new and seasonal reading experience should follow Gorey’s advice and look up Algernon Blackwood, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, E. Nesbit, Bram Stoker, Tom Hood, W.W. Jacobs, and Wilkie Collins. Here are little descriptions of four of the stories to give you a fuller picture:

“August Heat” by W.F. Harvey (1885-1937)
This is the shortest piece in the book and a great place to start. An artist spends the morning tapping his pencil, searching for a subject, before drawing, inexplicably, the figure of a fat man in court, accused of a terrible crime. After his work, and again inexplicably, the artist goes for a walk, where he finds a man “sitting with his back towards me, busy at work on a slab of curiously veined marble.” Who is this man? What has he carved into the marble? The story is so short I can’t say anything more without spoiling it.

“The Visitor from Down Under” by L.P. Hartley (1895-1972)
A man rearrives in London after time in Australia and retires to his favorite hotel, where, alone in the dining room, he chats with the waiter, Clutsam. They talk about the law, about how society might punish a criminal, and about how the dead might do the work society can’t. Later that night, the waiters are roused by a man in a cloak requesting a bed. Most chilling sentence: “The pillow with its fivefold perforation was the first object on which Clutsam noticed bloodstains.”

“The Thirteenth Tree” by R.H. Malden (1879-1951)
“The Thirteenth Tree” is as a story about houses, which ones look nice, which ones don’t, which ones have bizarre and intricate histories. It’s a story about the rooms inside houses: “completely lined with well-filled bookcases whose contents looked as if they would repay examination.” And a story about the gardens outside houses, which become like stages for the past to play itself out again before the present.

“Casting the Runes” by M.R. James (1862-1936)
Malden dedicated his book of ghost stories to M.R. James, still considered to be the master of this branch of horror writing. “Casting the Runes” takes place in academic circles, amidst backstabbing and jealousy. For historians, good ones or bad, the past never truly dies. Image most likely to linger in your brain: “And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn in pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly.”

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