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Scary Stories for Stormy Nights

October 30, 2013

Ash in Winter

Ash in Winter

For Hallowe’en: below is a version of an article I wrote for SIN – the student newspaper of NUI Galway —

It was a dark and stormy night.

I lie. It was dark. There was rain and it was a tad windy. But stormy? I was tucked up in bed. Tea steamed in my favourite mug on the bedside table. Yes, alright, there was chocolate somewhere about the place.

October 31 was looming. I stood in front of my bookshelves, head to one side, reading along the spines. Way down, in a corner, I stopped in front of the lonely little group that comes under the heading Anthologies. They keep strange company – Collected American Short Stories, The Faber Book of Letters, Stories from the Greek Comedians. (Maybe I should move that up to the Classics shelf.) And there it was: Anthology of Fear: 20 Haunting Stories for Winter Nights. Why, the title alone would send a shiver down your spine.

Anthology of Fear

Anthology of Fear

Long ago and far away (or, when I was younger and lived in Dublin), I subscribed to one of those collections that are advertised on TV. You know the type – knit your own Spitfire, create your own cushions with Granny’s old tights and This! Embroidery! Kit!  With me, it was books. The Great Writers! Introductory Offer! Only 4.99! Mighty handsome they were too: gilded hardbacks, with print like that in crumbly leather-bound copies of Cowper and Johnson found my brother in a Portobello book barrow.

No sneering at the back. Thanks to that collection I read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair for the first time, and was amazed at how much I enjoyed it. I had read Mrs Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte, but now I discovered Cranford, long before the BBC adaptation renewed Gaskell’s reputation. The Great Writers books sit solid in their own battered mahogany bookcase. Occasionally I think about sending them somewhere – I am fast running out of shelf space for my other books – but they’re still here.

Now and again, the people at Great Writers’ Central would give us an extra, seasonal, treat – Christmas Stories by Dickens. Or Stories for Summer. (Paperback. Handy for the plane. Very thoughtful people at Great Writers Central.)  Or Anthology of Fear, which was now propped up on the duvet in front of me.

The book had moved house – twice. Still, dear Reader, I had never opened it. Now, having done so, I made two important discoveries:                                                                                       

1. I came across ghost stories by writers I would never have associated with the genre.             

2. My love of reading stories was revived.

Maybe you knew, but I sure as hell didn’t, that Edith Nesbit – she of The Railway Children – had written horror stories. Four collections, in fact. Edith Wharton – creator of The House of Mirth, and the Pulitzer-winning The Age of Innocence – also wrote ghost stories. The collection also contains two stories by Mary Braddon, a Victorian writer of ‘sensational novels’. Her The Cold Embrace is melodramatic: a no-good student comes to a bad end. There’s a surprise.

There are stories by writers whose names we know from their popular work, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote The Scarlet Letter, and Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). Hawthorne’s atmospheric Young Goodman Brown, is set in Salem. Its horror is in the way the mind of the protagonist is altered forever; only the reader is a witness. Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest is included, as are his The Judge’s House and The Squaw. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla is printed in full. A vampire tale, written 25 years before Dracula, it is a wonderful read.

Which leads to my second realization: I had forgotten how much fun it is to read stories. Anthology of Fear brought back the childhood joy of discovery on opening a new book. Because they are ghost stories, I found myself taking them for what they were, allowing myself to be dragged along by the narratives – the best of which are extremely scary.

There is a delight in reading stories set in the 16th and 17th centuries, and those written in the 1800s. The descriptive style, vocabulary and structure used in the stories are an antidote to modern novels. ‘Yclept’ – I like reading a word like ‘yclept’. The writers of these stories create an intimacy with the reader – unforgettable pictures are framed in the mind. Now, I want to read more of these writers’ work.

I must borrow a line from Irving’s The Lady with the Velvet Collar. Cosy, as the wintry weather whirls round the house, I become ‘in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the charnel-house of decayed literature’.

I’m ready. Tell me a story.

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