What could be more classic than scary stories in October, as we count down the days to Halloween? Here’s a trick-or-treat sampling of some great rereleases by kings (and a queen) of chill, including two surprise entries: Charles Dickens (who knew he wrote scary, I mean beyond the horrors of Victorian poverty?) and Norvell Page, who just may have inspired the Iron Man franchise. Don your capes and costumes and come read this week’s Classic Returns.
Dickens, Charles. Supernatural Short Stories. Alma. 2013. ISBN 9781847492272. pap. $12.95. F
I’m sure that Dickens scholars were aware of this, but I didn’t know the author of Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist also wrote paranormal and horror tales. This single-volume edition features the most paranormal stories Dickens ever wrote, and extra materials in the back of the book cover the author’s life and career. There are even pictures!
The stories contain many gothic tropes: child murderers (“A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles II”); grave robbers and goblins (“The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton”); ghosts (“The Signalman”); a haunted chair (“The Bagman’s Story”); apparitions not unlike the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future (“The Baron of Grogzwig”). If one of your Christmas traditions is reading A Christmas Carol aloud to your family, now you can incorporate Dickens’s spooky tales into your Halloween festivities.
Farrell, Henry. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Oct. 2013.ISBN 9781455546756. pap. $15. F
Back in print for the first time in 20 years, this novel was adapted into a camp classic film in 1962 that starred dueling divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In the foreword “inimitable literary agent” Mitch Douglas says Farrell had “given birth to what has been called the psycho-biddy movie, a brand of horror film dealing with psychotic older women, providing vehicles for dozens of aging stars: Tallulah Bankhead in Die, Die My Darling; Ruth Gordon and Geraldine Page in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? and Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage, among others.”
This release also includes several other stories by Farrell, including “What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?,” the basis of another “psycho-biddy” film starring Davis (again!) and de Havilland, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964, helmed by Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich).
Jackson, Shirley. Hangsaman. Penguin Classics. 2013. 9780143107040. pap. $15. F
This was Jackson’s second novel, and it is not quite as straight-up chilling as “The Lottery” or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The psychological suspense story is a sort of “what if” based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington sophomore in 1946. Jackson fans have mixed opinions of this story: some say, what the heck is this? Others say it’s as unsettling and ambiguous as The Turn of the Screw. In the foreword by Francine Prose, the author says she wishes she’d known about the book earlier; she would’ve included it in her “Strange Books” course. The intro concludes with Prose urging us to “read it.” Well, if you say so, Francine!
Page, Norvell W. The Spider: Satan’s Murder Machines. Ramble House: Amazon. 2013. illus. notes. ISBN 9781605436579. pap. $15. F
What Halloween would be complete without spiders and their webs—not to mention Satan and his murder machines? This fun facsimile of the December 1939 issue of The Spider, a pulp magazine, has stories by Page (as Grant Stockbridge), Charles Boswell, and Moran Tudury. There’s derring-do and crime-busting, some ghosts, a couple of dead bodies, and best of all, lots of repros of old ads (Half-price Typewriters! Wear the Red and Black Emblem of the Spider Army—a Globe-girdling Club with a Real Purpose That Binds Its Members into a Crusading Legion!) and fantastic illustrations.
There’s an unusual intro by Joel Frieman that theorizes that this particular issue of The Spider was an influence on Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man and Iron Man. I don’t know if I believe the argument—not even sure I understand it—but the visuals are great.
Wells, H.G. The Invisible Man. Gollancz: Orion. Nov. 2013. ISBN 9780575115378. $15.95 SF
Wells, H.G. The War of the Worlds. Gollancz: Orion. 2013. ISBN 9780575115354. $15.95. SF
Both of these reissues by science fiction master Wells have new covers and forewords by award-winning author Adam Roberts. Wells’s Victorian era–set stories resonate with modern readers: the power a scientist wields in The Invisible Man drives him insane —and leads him to murder to keep it; lethal invaders from Mars descend on London, killing most of the humans in The War of the Worlds.
In the intro to The War of the Worlds, Roberts calls many features of the novel “extraordinarily prescient”:
…The aliens’ heat-ray anticipates laser technology, the lethal “black smoke” they use looks forward to the use of mustard gas in the First World War. But perhaps the most insightful was the way Wells ended his narrative. He writes an inverted fable of Western colonial aggression, defeated not by military force but my microbes. It was not until many decades later that historians of the European empires made plain the extent to which it was precisely these agents—microbes—that made colonisation possible in the first place. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) brilliantly exposes how European resistance to certain diseases, and the lack of these germs in the rest of the world, laid the grounds for the conquering of the Americas and Africa.
Now that’s something to mull over when you hand out the candy to trick-or-treaters. Be sure to wash your hands frequently!