A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Edited by Darryl Jones
A sizeable percentage of the human race loves to be scared – safely. It’s a characteristic that transcends ethnicity, gender, education, upbringing and virtually every other ‘marker’ you care to think of. As children, watching something pretend-frightening on television, we hide behind the sofa or – in the absence of that convenient piece of furniture – peer between partially open fingers. As adults … well … this particular adult has actually been known to do exactly the same (the fingers, not the sofa).
The key words are ‘safely’ and ‘pretend’. We know it’s fiction. None of it is genuinely frightening because we know it isn’t real.
From a very young age I’ve loved ghost and horror stories. There’s nothing I like better than a nice dose of the cauld grues – late at night, in bed, with a mug of cocoa, a book on my knees and a bedside lamp. Over the years I’ve cheerfully worked my way through volumes of stories about ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties without a single bump in the night ever disturbing my sleep.
Horror Stories is no common schlock-fest. Darryl Jones has skilfully gathered the most beautifully written, unsettling stories in the English language. Horror classics like M R James’ Count Magnus, W W Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw and le Fanu’s Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter keep company with stories that are entirely new to me.
Stories of the undead and premature burial rub shoulders with psychological studies of encroaching madness and tales of the primaeval creatures lurking in the shadows of our folk memories. Some of the titles alone can disturb your dreams: For the Blood is the Life (Francis Marion Crawford) and The Vivisector Vivisected (Ronald Ross) being two that have particularly stayed with me.
I made the mistake of initially taking the bed/dim light/cocoa approach to Horror Stories, but before I was more than three or four stories in (I believe it was de Balzac’s La Grande Bretêche that finished me off), I decided that I really needed daylight – and preferably sunshine – to tackle any more.
In a way that’s very difficult to put a finger on this collection of horror stories manages to move out of ‘safe’ territory. It blurs the lines between ‘real’ and ‘pretend’ to such an extent that in one or two places it’s hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Ambrose Bierce’s Chickamauga is a case in point. Set in the aftermath of the eponymous Battle of Chickamauga – one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War, it’s furious, nihilistic and chilling.
As always with OUP books there are copious notes at the back, with biographical details, explanations of possibly difficult words and allusions, and they informed me that Bierce actually fought in the Battle of Chickamauga – giving a whole new horrific spin to the story.
I wouldn’t recommend this superb collection to anyone of a nervous or over-imaginative disposition, but if you like to think of yourself as an aficionado of horror, you need this book. Just make sure you read it in the friendly and reassuring light of day – although perhaps not on a really hot day in August. There’s this story, August Heat, you see ….
OUP. Hardback. 2014. ISBN: 978-0-19-968543-1. 552pp.