Horror

MR James’ Ghosts: Building on the Victorians

I first heard of MR James in a completely unexpected place.  It happened a few years ago while reading a Martin H. Greenberg anthology called My Favorite Fantasy Story*.  This is a book from the early oughts in which modern writers (including George RR Martin for those of you who must have every printed mention of the man in your collections) chose ONE fantasy story from all of the history of writing and gave their reasons for calling it the best ever.

My Favorits Fantasy Story Cover

As you can imagine, this produced an eclectic mix, with everything from Mopsa the Fairy, a novella from 1869 which was, quite frankly, the strangest selection of the book as well as, in my opinion, the weakest, to a Terry Pratchett tale.  Also in the mix were not one but two of Vance’s Dying Earth stories (Martin chose the best of these) which one is never certain whether to classify as SF or Fantasy.

Finally, there was this weird little ghost story by some guy named MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, chosen by Morgan Llywelyn, which, though a change of pace from most, was one I remembered years later (all right, I’ll admit there were a couple that I still recall, particularly the Zelazny and the two by Vance, but the ghost story was in there).

It was completely different from what I was expecting, but not in a bad way like Mopsa the Fairy.  It was a creepy ghost story of an unseen spirit messing with the protagonist at a pleasant seaside resort.  No gore, no dismemberment, just the much more relatable experience of being alone and certain there was something watching you, and that that something was an evil something.

James Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Illustration

Years later, I took out a subscription to Easton Press’ Horror Classics lineup (I do this for two reasons: the first is that they are very pretty books, and the second is that they often select books that I would never have chosen for myself).  One of the books they sent me was a volume by MR James entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it turns out that it’s full of tales philosophically similar to this one.  All of them have barely seen, sometimes imaginary spirits stalking the main character without ever really becoming explicit.  James always leaves the question of whether they are real or product of madness hanging in the air–though the stories, if taken at face value, demand for the explanation to be the former.

These are extremely different from what Le Fanu was creating a few years earlier (despite James familiarity with Le Fanu’s work).  They are much less sexual–not sexual at all, in fact–and they don’t give the reader an explanation about what was happening.  While Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire, James’ haunts remain mysterious.

The best story in the collection, describing what literary experts would refer to as “some seriously bad ju-ju”, was likely “The Ash Tree”, but each will find his or her own favorite among the tales.

More interesting than a review here (there are dozens available), is to talk about MR James himself.  He is a man that one thinks would have enjoyed Classically Educated.  Not just a writer, but a scholar and an administrator, he was a polymath indeed. The fact that his ghost stories have eclipsed the rest of his reputation is almost sad.

One can imagine him sitting in his wood-paneled study or University rooms and exhaustively studying the writers of the supernatural that paved the way for him.  I can especially see him as an expert on many obscure Victorian writers of ghost stories that history has forgotten… because, though written in the 20th century, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is definitely a Victorian book.  It deals with Victorian preoccupations with a Victorian structure and informed by Victorian mores.

Though he is credited with creating the “antiquary ghost story” subgenre, it seems to me that James was not looking to innovate.  Quite the opposite, in face: the never-changing world of academia (Cambridge and Eton in his case), inspired him to look to the past and refine it.

In doing so, he did something new**, but only by chance.

 

*Though Gardner Dozois had a habit of dismissing Greenberg anthos as “pleasant but minor” in his Year’s Best books for ages, I’ve always found his collections to be pleasant and to contain at least a few memorable stories.  Not to try to contradict Dozois, who is a notable student of the SFF field, but sometimes a lack of readability is celebrated as creating “better” fiction, which seems unfortunate.

**I always think that the 80’s film Gremlins had to take at least some inspiration from this book.

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The Classics Made Pretty

What is a book lover?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people who enjoy books. For some, the love of books has to do with their collectibility: tracking down an inscribed first edition of a forgotten work is more of a rush than winning the lottery (although winning the lottery might allow larger purchases of collectible books).  Condition is paramount with this kind of book lover, and they probably will never read their new acquisition.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who only care about what a book actually says.  They’re fine with reading on their kindle or, if they utterly hate screen reading, a used-bookstore-bargain-bin paperback.

Most of us lie somewhere in the middle.  Physical books have an appeal that transcends mere content.  The edition, and yes, even the cover illustration, is often interwoven with the image that the book conjures in our mind years after the fact.

Also, there are some books that we just know we’ll read again and again, and that having a decent copy will make our lives easier in the long run.  Anyone who’s ever read the densely-packed type of a 1970s paperback will likely understand why I’m looking for a decent edition of Rebecca to replace the one I bought in a used bookstore bargain bin.

So today, I wanted to do a roundup of three books that I reread recently because I purchased new, better editions of them.  All three of the new editions are of that type that look impressive on a shelf but, more importantly, all three will last much longer than the cheap mass market paperbacks they supplanted.

On this occasion, I will be talking about the edition and not the content; they are three well-documented classics which need no further critical examination from me (not that that’s ever stopped me before…).

These three books represent three very different approaches to premium bookmaking (note that none of them costs more than about $40, so “premium” is a relative term).

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

The first, The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov is one of the B&N leatherbound classics series, although I have serious doubts about whether that is real leather on the covers.  Looks more like plastic to me, although it does a decent impression of it on the shelf.

The main pro to this one is clearly the price and easy availability.  I picked it up off of a shelf at a B&N in the US.  No mail, no hassle.  The cons are that, though much sturdier than your average hardcover, and containing a ribbon bookmark, it pales a bit beside the more beautiful options around.  Still, I’m delighted to have this one in my collection.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Loius Stevenson

Our next volume is Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Though the Easton Press seems to have discontinued the edition I have and replaced it with an even better (albeit much, much more expensive) one, you can still buy copies of the one I refer to very easily online.

Now this one is definitely leather-bound, and the edition looks handmade.  It has illustrations, and the paper seems to be something created for connoisseurs (in fact, it is archival-quality paper, so there may be something in that).  It is a truly beautiful book meant to last and to look classy on a bookshelf.  The wide spacing of the type also makes it a pleasure to read, so double goodness.

Cons?  Well, from a practical point of view, you don’t really need a big hardback of this book.  A 25,000 word novella is essentially fine in paperback form, and the large format of this one does seem like overkill.  If you’re buying books only for the content,  you will want to give this one a miss.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

The last one we’re looking at today is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in the beautiful Folio Society Edition.  It seems to have gone out of print, but here’s a nice one for a good price.

If anything – and despite the lack of leather – this edition is even more lush than the Easton Press book above.  The paper is of a beautiful light cream, and the title page tells you everything you might need to know:  the type of font, kind of paper, materials and even where the paper was milled.  It has a slipcase as well.

And if you’re looking for content?  Well, in this case, the edition is justified as well.  There’s no justification for reading The Name of the Rose in a cheap paperback edition.  This is a book to be savored, enjoyed, and reflected upon, no one that should leave ink marks from cheap printing on your hands.

And if you’re reading a book whose introduction says “Naturally, a manuscript” on a Kindle… well, then you are just a philistine and have obviously reached Classically Educated by mistake while searching for pictures of Etruscans having sex.

For the rest of you, the best of the three is the Eco… but those Easton Press editions sure look nice… and for $20, the three Asimov books in paperback would cost you more than the nice edition.  So pick your poison.

Seminal Vampires

In A Glass Darkly

 

Of course, Bram Stoker is often cited (by everyone who isn’t a serious student of the genre) as the father of Vampire fiction.  With Stephanie Meyer’s popularity, I suspect that the group of people who aren’t experts but are giving their opinion anyway is pretty big.  Hell, for all I know, Meyer’s fans might think the genre started with Anne Rice…  or with Meyer herself, and that this Dracula guy is a character from one of her unpublished novels.

At the risk of adding another non-expert voice to the discussion, I will not attempt to trace the genesis of the vampire myth in eastern European folklore (there are people who have dedicated their lives to that.  Go read their work) but will simply limit myself to expressing my thoughts about an early exponent that I happened to stumble across in my readings.

I was never specifically planning to read Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darklybut it happened to be included in Easton Press’ Horror Library, which I had signed up for (as mentioned here before, I’m a sucker for pretty editions).  It’s from 1872, which means that it predates Dracula by over 20 years, and it contains at least one story,  “Carmilla” which foreshadows the sexual overtones of Stoker’s book but focused on a lesbian as opposed to heterosexual relationship.

Vampire tits - Sheridan Le Fanu Carmilla

Of course, in 1872, you couldn’t really make things too explicit, but savvy readers will have known what LeFanu was talking about.  In fact, the story (more of a novella than a short story) has been adapted several times for film, always with a view for its shock value.  There’s an excellent article dealing with the film versions here (slightly, not excessively, NSFW).

Despite its notoriety, Carmilla wasn’t, in my opinion, the most memorable story in the book.  That honor has to go to “The Room in the Dragon Volant“, another novella length tale where sexual innuendo and dark motivations combine in what is essentially a modern horror/thriller framed in a Victorian writing style.  It develops slowly, but is extremely satisfying once it does.  No vampires in it, though.

The rest of the book is composed of shorter tales, of which “Mr. Justice Harbottle”, a tale of divine retribution, is also better than “Carmilla” IMO.  Satisfying and brutal– everything one needs in a horror story!

So, without opining on things I have no first-hand knowledge of, I can safely state that, while Stoker might have popularized the form, the vampire story in English literature preceded him.  And LeFanu was much braver in the use of cutting-edge, controversial elements than Stoker would ever be.

All in all, a good book, especially for those who enjoy a good haunt.

 

Apocalypse is a Dirty Business

 

We’ve got a treat today.  Author Nick Barton is celebrating that he has a story in the Enter the Apocalypse anthology (in which our editor-in-chief, Gustavo Bondoni also has a story) by writing about the apocalypse.  We think you’ll enjoy his take on what makes the subject so effective.

 

Apocalyptic stories have always appealed to me. That sounds somewhat sinister out loud, but I can’t help it. I’m not alone, either. So many writers have shared their own cataclysmic nightmares, all brought to print, the big screen, and in video games. From nuclear fallout to monster floods, dangerous spores and chemical warfare, and nameless disasters and formless creatures, you could say we are well studied.

However, insane weather and giant comets are great, but it’s the mystery of the disaster that always gets my attention. This year alone I have read around five apocalyptic stories (not always by choice) and each one has featured its own harrowing brand of terror. Four out of the five have clear names for their horsemen, but one book, BIRD BOX keeps the nature of its horrors unknown. This is a good thing. Monsters remain scary the less you see of them. That’s why the Xenomorph in ALIEN only has a token amount of screen time. In BIRD BOX, the end of the world comes about by erratic murders. Later it becomes apparent people are going kill-crazy because they have seen something. People begin to stay indoors, boarding up their windows so they can’t look outside. It gets to the point they must wear blindfolds to navigate outdoors. Scary? Bloody terrifying. I was genuinely getting anxious while reading it, and once when I left it to get a drink I jumped at a window. I was still halfway locked inside the story. That’s immersion on a level I haven’t experienced before. BIRD BOX is simply a book you must read.

While reading BIRD BOX, it reminded me of another end of the world novel that has haunted me long after reading it. THE ROAD. Perhaps the ultimate apocalyptic novel (at least in my mind.) Nothing remains. Nothing and nobody has a name, and the reason behind the burnt world is never explained. In every story like it there’s always a glimmer of hope, but for the Man and the Boy there is no hope. Trees are falling down, what people left have become cannibals, and the sun is always snuffed by the ashen atmosphere. You really wonder what the Man and the Boy are living for. They’re heading south for the coast, but it’s clear even if they do make it, what happens next? Without an ecosystem, the planet isn’t going to last.

THE ROAD, much like BIRD BOX, also features incredibly vivid and frightening imagery. BIRD BOX’s unseen horrors drive people rabid. One of the deaths include someone getting their lips torn off. In THE ROAD, the Man and the Boy come across a campfire with a charred newborn baby on a spit. It’s dark, terrifying and disturbing, but at the same time you sympathize with the characters. You don’t hate them. Survival instinct runs hot in humanity, and in THE ROAD it really does seem like people are surviving, not because they’ve got anything to live for, but because it’s in their nature. They just have to.

Hopefully we won’t ever have to.

Enter_the_Apocalypse-FrontCover

Nick Barton is a speculative fiction writer living in Somerset, England. His horror short story, THE LAST RESORT can be found in Wicked Tales anthology, ‘Muffled Scream: Corner of the Eye.’ If Nick has gone missing, chances are high he is living as a wood elf in Skyrim, dancing to The Beatles or watching The Lord of the Rings, again. Visit him at nickbartonauthor.weebly.com, or on Twitter @NickBarton101.

When Horror Actors Go Bad

Laura (1945) Movie Poster

So, our 1001 movies quest continues (see here and here for other notable entries in this series), and today’s installment is referred to the 1945 film Laura.  Now, this one was a solid, entertaining noir movie… but there isn’t much one can say about it except to watch it if you can get it on Netflix in your area.  A good film, but not one that speaks to an era or about which we can draw deep philosophical conclusions*.  It certainly doesn’t compare – either in cast or in writing talent, to this flick which was one of its contemporaries.

As far as I can tell, a modern viewer looking to draw conclusions from this film will note two things.  The first is minor unless one is a jazz lover, and that is that the the theme song, Laura, seems to have spawned hundreds of recordings by everyone up to and including Frank Sinatra.

But the truly iconic moment comes when you realize that the bumbling, leading man-esque “boyfriend” character is none other than Vincent Price.  The mustache is missing, but it’s unmistakably him.  Anyone whose childhood was marked by the video for Michael Jackson’s thriller will know that Vincent Price is synonymous with late-night B-movie horror.  His voice on the video wasn’t just another creepy narrator – it represented an homage to a career that became representative of cheesy horror.  Heck, he was so big that he was a guest on the Muppets!

Vincent Price With Severed Head

So, to see this icon prancing around as a love interest in an old noir film was as distracting as having Sauron turn up for the charity ball in a lavender suit and carrying canned goods for the poor.  Perhaps it would have been all right if (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) his character had turned out to be the murderer after all, and the dorky good-looking guy thing had been an act…  but even this salve is denied the modern viewer.

To that point, of course, Price wasn’t a horror icon, but still, one must retroactively chastise everyone involved in production for not having the foresight to predict it and cast someone else.  After all, having posterity write what we’ve just written about your movie probably wasn’t anyone’s intention.

Those too young to remember Price should definitely watch it, and to understand what we mean in a more relevant way, try to imagine Freddy Krueger (who has been relegated to the slots that Price used to occupy on the late night programming cheesy list) being cast as the shallow, idiotic prince in a Disney princess movie, and you’ll see what I mean.

*Intelligent readers will note that this has never stopped us before.  To them we maturely stick out our tongues and make rude noises before admitting that they might possibly have a point.

Victims, Then and Now

The Seventh Victim

 

As long-time readers of this site already know, we’ve been watching and reviewing films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in approximately chronological order, and we’re currently involved in the 1940s.  Most films on this list have been reviewed to death by critics, so we try to give it a bit of a more global view, using the clearness of hindsight to aid us in the process.

Today’s film isn’t all that well known, and is RKO’s The Seventh Victim, which was billed, back in it’s day (1943), as a horror movie.  This probably isn’t surprising, as the plot centers around a Satanist cult, which, one imagines, was seriously frightening to audiences seventy years ago.  

Seventh Victim - Subway Scene

If it happened to be filmed today, it would probably be classified as a suspense flick rather than a horror movie.  And that brings up an interesting dichotomy in the way the world has evolved.

No one will be surprised to hear that moviegoing audiences are inured to issues that were taboo in the 1940s.  Violence, gore, sex and, yes, Satanism, all need to be VERY extreme to get more than a passing glance in a film.  Even images of sex have gotten so easy to find online that the days of teenagers staying up late in the hope of catching a glimpse of a breast or (wonder of wonders) some pubic hair on late-night cable are long gone – which is likely to kill the air time of Madonna’s Body of Evidence!

 

The strange thing is that, while this was all going on, the tolerance of society for violence and gore have gone way down.  Today, one can go to jail for the slightest physical confrontation in any part of the civilized world, even if no one is seriously hurt.  And gore?  Let me ask you something: when was the last time you slaughtered your own dinner?

Of course, some will say that violence is still happening, and it’s terrible and the world is such a violent place, and it’s getting worse, and…  breathless pause to see if anyone is listening.

And yes, there are still some wars out there, but they are extremely localized and actual fighting affects a much smaller proportion of the world’s population than ever anything in the 11th century would have (to take a random example).  In fact, things that today would make front-page news in most places, such as a brigand’s attack and murder / rape of the occupants of a caravan, were commonplace occurrences barely of note unless one of the murdered parties was a friend.

The world, despite what alarmists like to state, is not getting more violent.  Quite the contrary.

So why have movies moved so far that The Seventh Victim is more quaint than shocking (still good, just not scary)?  

Gore AND sex...

One theory says that popular media sublimated the fears of the Cold War…  but that’s a bit too much of a sociological leap for us here at CE to make (we tend towards individual interpretations of phenomena – herd patterns are best left to people who study livestock).  So we suggest that either violence has become acceptable as it touches individuals much less than it used to and is therefore fair game for a movie or that the individual need for violence is coming through our mass entertainment.

And Satanism?  Hell, reading their commandments makes them look sane compared to some.  OK, maybe not quite sane…

 

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