With the approach of Halloween, we polled our staff and contributors about which literary works of horror (or of just plain ol’ spookiness) they’d like to point our readers to. From the progenitor of the macabre short story, Edgar Allan Poe, to the psychological stylings of Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates, these works display a keen understanding of the utter fragility of the human mind. It may be a well-worn genre, but horror retains its power to effectively probe our darker impulses and explore cultural traumas:
Paul Wilner, ZYZZYVA Contributor: I generally stay away from horror literature – it’s a step above science fiction, but it still gives me, you know, the creeps. That’s the intention, of course, but it feels a bit…intentional for my taste.
But I make an exception for Edgar Allan Poe. Besides being the lead Goth of his time, inspiring everyone from Baudelaire to Lou Reed, there’s a hysterical realism to Poe’s prose that continues to be relevant, even incorrigibly modern.
The Poe story that has stayed with me most is “The Tell-Tale Heart.’’ First published in 1843 in The Pioneer, a magazine edited by James Russell Lowell, a poet about as far from the aesthetic of the bard of Baltimore as it’s possible to imagine.
In it, the unreliable narrator recounts the “perfect crime’’ of murdering the old man who lives in the house they share, whether as a servant or family member.
Poe strikes the High Romantic note from the outset.
“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?’’
How, indeed? Let us count the ways.
Trying to explain his motive for the crime, he discounts the usual: “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me…I think it was his eye! yes it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold…”
In the dead of the night, he falls on the old man with a shriek, pulls his bed down over him, dismembers him and buries his remains in the room. Move over, Hannibal Lecter.
When the police arrive – neighbors had heard the commotion – he entertains them cordially, confident “in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph’’ and places his chair above the spot where the corpse had been hidden. But as he tries to continue his small talk, he hears a sound, persistent and growing ever louder – the heartbeat of his victim.
“Was it possible they heard not! Almighty God! – no, no! They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! they were making a mockery of my horror! – this I thought, and this I think.”
Chattering in terror, he confesses, prefiguring a thousand Raskolnikovs.
Poe is considered the father of the detective novel, a banal ambition. But he was so much more. His excited sentences leap forth and grip us still, even in these short pages.
He anticipates Baudelaire’s famous challenge – “Hypocrite lecteur – mon semblable – mon frère,’’ and Rimbaud’s later derangement of the senses.
Found delirious on the streets of Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1849, he died a few days later. There’s an apocryphal report that the cause of death was “cooping’’ – a form of 19th century election fraud in which unwitting victims were kept in a room (or “coop’’) and plied with liquor until they voted, often several times, for a particular candidate. Or maybe he was just drunk, and took too many drugs – he never needed much encouragement in that regard.
Regardless, “The Tell-Tale Heart’’ still makes me shiver. I see Poe’s wild man, and his victim, in my mind’s eye. Wherever we may go, he is waiting.
Rebecca Rand, Intern: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of Joyce Carol Oates’ most famous short stories, and it is an incredibly eerie work of psychological horror. It recalls the experience of a teenager named Connie, approached by a creepy man who calls himself Arnold Friend, who she finds seductive in spite of herself.
When a character in any story utters the line, “You’re a monster!” to a human villain, it is usually after s/he has committed or promised to commit some inhuman act of violence. Oates manages to make Arnold Friend an incredible monster without any violence. We question his humanness because he is grotesquely phony. He has shaggy black hair that is “crazy like a wig,” a face covered in mask-like foundation makeup, a nakedly aged throat, eyelashes covered in tar, and boots stuffed to make himself look taller. His disguise is clumsy and careless–he trips over his obviously-stuffed footwear. Connie sees all this, know’s he’s a fraud, and yet he still exerts psychological control over her. This is part of what makes “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” so freaking scary. And a perfect short read for this Halloween.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: If you walked into a mall bookstore before the year 1995, chances are you saw them: the rows and rows of mass market paperbacks with evocatively rendered skeletons, masked killers, and insect hordes adorning their covers. While you may have thought that titles such as Night-Shriek, Toy Cemetery, and The Accursed – with their almost microscopic fonts and outlandish storylines – had been resigned to the dustbin of history, one man has made it his mission to preserve their dubious legacy. Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks From Hell is both a survey of and a love-letter to the lurid horror novels of the 70’s and 80’s, skipping over the big names like Stephen King and Dean Koontz in favor of the lesser known and forgotten authors who contributed to the genre during the mass market paperback boom.
While Hendrix’s deadpan, often ironic tone may not be to every reader’s liking, his genuine excitement when he stumbles upon a gem in the dusty stacks proves infectious. His enthusiasm is palpable as he describes the work of William H. Johnstone, whose novels routinely featured muscle-bound Vietnam vets battling Satan-worshipping deviants in small town America, as well as the more clinical and psychologically-driven stylings of Andrew Neiderman (his book Brainchild depicts what happens when a straight A science student turns her household into a laboratory maze for humans). Don’t be surprised if you come away from this book with your own wishlist of macabre titles to track down. An ideal read for the October season, Paperbacks From Hell serves as a nostalgic ode to a paperback era long gone and a reminder of the assorted treasures that might be lurking at your local used bookstore.