Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Ghost of an Autumn

Here in western Montana, climate change robbed us of our Fall.

An early snowstorm on September 29 left us punched and reeling from an icy fist. In many parts of the region, snow levels were measured in feet, not inches. I woke to see my three cats staring out the living room picture window, stunned and purring nervously.

Instead of blazing with yellows and oranges, the leaves on the trees carpeting the hills around Butte curled up and died on the branches, turning a sickly dull brown overnight. They looked like pennies left too long in a miser’s pocketa fitting sight for this mining city which built its wealth and reputation on the copper dredged from its soil, but a sore sight for eyes like mine which always look forward to the color-symphony of autumn. Fall has always been my favorite season. Not this year.

Thankfully, I have some good books at hand to distract me from the dead landscape outside my window.

My annual Halloween list this year consists primarily of three books: Ghost Stories, edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger; The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King; and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. I’m still floating somewhere in the middle of each of them, but here are some of the highlights of my favorite spooky parts so far....

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

We all know the familiar opening line to Du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel, etched permanently in most of our minds by Alfred Hitchcock’s film. But there are chilling delights that creep up my spine the further I go in the book and read about how Maxim de Winter’s new wife (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) must contend with the memory and reputation of his first bride, Rebecca, who drowned after taking their boat out alone for an evening sail around the cliffs below Manderley. For instance, there is a scene when the “skull-faced” housekeeper Mrs. Danvers confronts the new Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca’s old bedroom and asks: “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?” Apparently, Mrs. Danvers’ favorite hobby is keeping Rebecca alive by tormenting the second Mrs. De Winter. She proves that undying devotion to someone is not always a good thing.

Of course, having seen Hitchcock’s film countless times, I know how all this ends, but I’m enjoying my journey through Du Maurier’s novel which is so rich in imagery I often find myself reaching up to wipe away the ocean-dashed salt spray off my face. I’ve been listening to Rebecca on audiobook, narrated by actress Anna Massey sometime before she herself passed away in 2011. Massey expertly captures the, um, spirit of both Hitchcock’s movie and Du Maurier’s original words.

Stephen King has a way of turning ordinary, everyday objects into talismans of horror. Before reading The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, I never would have thought a cookie jar could be haunted. Or that an obituary could lead to a person’s death, rather than reporting it. Oh, and if you ever see a six-year-old boy with orange hair, green eyes, and a beanie, you should know bad things are about to happen: very, very bad things at the hands of a “Bad Little Kid” (one of the creepiest stories in these pages).

I’ve read some of these stories and novellas beforeincluding Blockade Billy and Urbut a return trip to King’s wicked prose did not disappoint.

As King himself says of the twenty-one tales (and a scatter of poems) gathered here, “The best of them have teeth.” Indeed they do, and they bite like vampires.

I busied myself to think of a storya story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horrorone to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.

Thus writes Mary Shelley in the introduction to Frankenstein and which is quoted in a footnote to Ghost Stories: Classic Tales of Horror and Suspense. This new anthology edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger is completely worthy of its name and might just be the favorite of this scary trio of books I’m currently reading. Morton and Klinger have assembled a blood-curdling array of stories here whose authors include Charles Dickens (this marks the fourth or fifth time I’ve read “The Signal Man” and I’m still freaked out by what happens at the mouth of that lonely railroad tunnel), Henry James, M. R. James, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sir Walter Scott, Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe. If that sounds like a dusty, musty line-up to you, then you’d be wrong, dead wrong. Klinger and Morton expertly show how these ghost stories laid the foundation for the likes of Stephen King, Paul Tremblay, and Victor LaValle and serve as guideposts for any writer who wants to learn how to scare the hell out of readers.

Most of these tales also make us look at the genre of ghost stories in a fresh way (weird to say that about “dusty, musty” classics, eh?).

For instance, “Since I Died” by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, first published in 1873, is narrated by a ghost who longs to reach out and touch her lesbian lover but can’t. It is as poignant as it is morbid (and surprisingly ahead of its time). Here’s a passage that is especially sad:
     I hold out my arms.
     You lift your head and look me in the eye.
     If a shudder crept across your figure; if your arms, laid out upon the table , leaped but once above your head; if you named my name; if you held your breath with terror, or sobbed aloud for love, or sprang, or cried—
     But you only lift your head and look me in the eye.
     If I dared step near, or nearer; if it were permitted that I should cross the current of your living breath; if it were willed that I should feel the leap of human blood within your veins; if I should touch your hands, your cheeks, your lips; if I dropped an arm as lightly as a snowflake round your shoulder—
Reading “Since I Died” made me think about my own afterlife to come and how horrible it would be if I couldn’t reach out to hug my wife with my light-as-snowflake arms. It’s enough to bring a cold, dead tear to my eye.

“The Last of Squire Ennismore” by Charlotte Riddell published in 1888 was another favorite story of mine and describes things that go bump in the night as well as anything I’ve seen or heard since I sat in a movie theater watching Poltergeist and Kubrick’s The Shining in the early 1980s. It opens with a fisherman recounting the strange goings-on in the titular squire’s house, which has now fallen into ruin:
There used to be awful noises, as if something was being pitched from the top of the great staircase down in to the hall; and then there would be a sound as if a hundred people were clinking glasses and talking all together at once. And then it seemed as if barrels were rolling in the cellars; and there would be screeches, and howls, and laughing, fit to make your blood run cold.
So there you have it: three ghostly reads for your Halloween list. They’re scary enough to freeze the sap in the trees around my house, even if a September snowstorm hadn’t gotten there first.

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