Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Teeth: Vampire Tales

One of the noblest and most tragic figures of the imagination was the vampire-- damn his soul, and our own.  But to see this marvelous, terrifying creature reduced to a plastic Halloween mask for sexual or political repression has been a tedious outrage.  The vampire attained his stature through the emotion of fear of a fantastic evil, yet how utterly he has lost it all at the heavy, hammering hands of explication.  Rest in peace, Nosferatu, none will ever take your place.
So writes Thomas Ligotti, in the essay "The Dark Beauty of Unheard-Of Horrors."  I don't necessarily agree that the evolution of the vampire in horror fiction has been a lamentable phenomenon-- that's a subject worthy of separate discussion.  But I think it's undeniably true that the vampire, once the other, has become us.  Like many monsters, it's now as much a tool for writing metaphorically about human psychology as an expression of truly alien malevolence.  Forbidden love, world-weary philosophy, emotional cruelty: all can be "vampirized."  This gives the basic vampire myth, which (as Ligotti notes elsewhere in his essay) can feel stale and over-explained, new potential, new variety.  Just what a group of gifted writers can do with that potential is amply demonstrated by Teeth, the new vampire anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.

In marketing terms, Teeth is a YA anthology, but like most intelligent YA fiction it can be enjoyed by readers of any age, and the contributor list is similar to those of other Datlow and/or Windling anthos.  Really, the only thing that sets this apart from "adult" anthologies is that most of the stories have teen protagonists.  Inevitably, YA plus vampire will make some of you think of the Twilight series.  I haven't read those books, but I know enough about them to reassure anyone with doubts that this anthology is something altogether different.  Vampire romance is featured in only a few of these stories, and when it does, it always comes with a surprising twist.

What do these stories offer, if not romance?  Well, just about everything else.  There are old vampires, young vampires, and vampires of unguessable age; good, evil, and morally ambiguous vampires; vampires in night school, vampires who collect antiques, vampires at the circus.  Even when there are broad similarities in theme between particular stories, the variation in detail is more than enough to render the similarity irrelevant.  Both "Gap Year" by Christopher Barzak and "In the Future When All's Well" by the astonishingly versatile Catherynne M. Valente use vampirism to explore the uncertainties about oneself and one's future that come at the end of high school. But they write about very different kinds of vampire, and in very different styles (Valente's story is in the first person, and does a pitch-perfect job of capturing a teenager's voice without caricaturing it), to a point where comparing them feels pointless.

Fairly or not, I think of YA fiction as often playing it safe, offering the moral lessons adults want teens to take rather than ones that are actually accurate.  That's not the case here.  Several stories are very adult and dark; they have, well, teeth.  Sometimes the tropes of lesser fiction are turned on their heads to disturbing effect, as in Garth Nix's "Vampire Weather," which looks like it's going in the obvious direction and then doesn't.  But this isn't an entirely dark set of stories: there's heroism, optimism, and even humorous asides, as in Cassandra Clare and Holly Black's "The Perfect Dinner Party," which contrasts tips for ideal party-giving with the events of a very unusual evening.

All the stories in Teeth are at the very least well-written and easy to read, with some spark of originality that makes it clear why they were published.  Even where I thought the basic concept was too familiar or too obvious, there was a detail or a sentence or a character that made it all worthwhile.  This baseline of quality is what I've come to expect from Windling and Datlow; it's the reason I'll buy any anthology of theirs, regardless of the authors involved.  This time around, my own favorites, in addition to "Vampire Weather" and "In the Future When All's Well," were "Sunbleached" by Nathan Ballingrud, a spare but poetic story about a home broken both literally and figuratively, and the vampire that lives underneath it; Kathe Koja's "Baby," a chilling narrative that brought out in me an unexpected sympathy; and "History" by Ellen Kushner, a gently melancholy piece that features a very different kind of vampire romance from the hot and sparkly variety.

As Datlow and Windling's introduction reminds us, vampires stories have existed for a long time in a great many different places.  Every time a popular new vampire concept emerges and spawns a thousand imitators, it's easy to decide that the blood-suckers are finally played out.  But as long as there are humans, there will always be dark and unusual aspects of our existence to explore, and the vampire will surely remain an excellent way of doing that.  No matter how many vampire stories are told, there will always be room for good new ones, and Teeth offers its readers nineteen of them in one inexpensive package.
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Teeth's official release date is next Tuesday, but I'm sure there are places where it's already on sale.  It comes in both hardcover and paperback editions; I have the hardcover, which is pretty spiffy-looking, and is discounted on Amazon to the point where it costs about as much as the paperback.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like

I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like was the second book Chomu Press published, but it was the second-to-last of their books I bought, only picking it up after ordering The Scholar's Tale, The Man Who Collected Machen, Revenants, and The Life of Polycrates.  The reason I held off on buying I Wonder... was a petty one: I'm instinctively turned off by works with attention-grabbing titles.  Whether they're ironically self-aggrandizing (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Winner of the National Book Award) or whimsical ("Dr. Bliss and the Library of Toast") or shocking, they feel too transparently manipulative.  I realize this is an absurd bias, but I'm stuck with it nonetheless.  Now let's say no more about it, because this review is not about me quirks, but about Justin Isis' brilliant new book.

This debut collection opens with its shortest story, "I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Unauthorized Egg Model Book Cover."  I don't know what that means (if it's meant to mean anything; see below for more), but the story is excellent, both in and of itself and as an introduction to Isis' work.  In three pages it demonstrates all of his gifts: insight into the experience of being young and being obsessive, prose that captures that insight and melds it with striking descriptions of the beauty (and horror) of everyday life, and flashes of transgression that disturb and yet are undeniably, almost wonderfully human.

I mention transgression and obsession.  To tell the truth, I'm not sure that these are categories that truly to apply to the fiction of Justin Isis.  Transgression implies a notion of wrong-doing, and the characters of these stories don't seem bothered by that sensibility; they simply do what they have to do.  And obsession... technically accurate, perhaps, but as Isis understands, obsession doesn't feel obsessive from within.  It's simply life, lived the only way it can possibly be.  Isis' descriptions capture this quality, describing strange, often unsettling behavior in language that, quite properly, renders it as naturally as the events of any minimalist slice-of-life fiction.

Take the title story, where a young man and a woman meet in a park and strike up something that might be called a relationship.  All that needs to be said about the nature of this connection is that the first substantive sentence she utters is "Let's burn things," and that ends up being their least creepy pastime.  Everything they do and say is described flatly, leaving the reader to imagine for himself the deeper drives and hidden psychological forces at work.  At one point the young man says:
--Last night I decided to call my new story, the one about the fox, "I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like."
Hidemi looked at him.
--You might be wondering what the connection between foxes and eating human flesh is.  The truth is that there is none, but by calling my story that, I force whoever reads the story to make some kind of connection.  That's part of my strategy, to force the reader to make connections between things they wouldn't normally connect.  If it's successful, it taints their everyday system of associations with new associations that I can impose.  That's the kind of power artists have, to reorder how people see the world.
(That may, or may not, explain some of Isis' own story titles.)  It becomes obvious that both the man and Hidemi are searching for something, but I don't think it's possible to put the subject of their search into words.  To call it "a search for meaning" would, I believe, simultaneously trivialize it and elevate it beyond what it deserves.  If that makes any sense to you.

I'm worried that I'm making Justin Isis sound like an unpleasant writer, or one whose stories feel like work rather than pleasure.  That's hardly fair.  I read most of I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes in one rapt sitting.  Isis writes about what most people would call dysfunction, but never in a way that feels showy, or tries to smear degradation all over the reader for the sake of doing so.  He's only shining a light on aspects of human behavior that often go unremarked.  And his prose is eminently readable, full of remarkable images.
The moths orbiting the streetlamps became fantastic, impossible butterflies.  The trees replayed the seasons in moments, a flicker from summer-green sheen to the brown of a light-wrought autumn.  The moon caught madness from the sun; its face reddened in shame, whitened with fear, sickened with green.  A woman was crying somewhere; Miyabi turned and saw her smiling.  Rivers of yellow and green trickled from her eyes as the broken starlight silvered her hair.  She read subtle blues and pinks in the line of her lips; a vein in her breast lit up with a cool fire before fading to burnished gold.
Miyabi, the protagonist of that story, sees the above in a dream, and her daily life is also one of observation, albeit of a much less elaborate world.  Unemployed, she leaves her bedroom rarely and the house more rarely still, living off her sister as she watches TV and scrounges peanut butter from the fridge.  A small, pathetic life, one might think, but Isis recognizes and captures in prose the way the details of such an existence can expand to satisfy any needs, the way one can live in expectation on what another would starve with.  Whether their obsessions are with an old schoolmate, a pop group, the cross-dressing boy from the bookstore, or the very existence of Chinese people, these characters know what they want, and wouldn't live any other way, even if they could.

Perhaps my favorite story in the collection, if that's a word you can apply to it, is "I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like Etc."  In this case, the title has obvious relevance to the story, about a pair of vegetarian sisters who decide to try eating meat.  Thus emboldened, they then move on to other varieties and flavors, until the more adventurous of the sisters begins to wonder... well, you can imagine.

This is disturbing, more so perhaps that anything that happens in any of Isis' other stories.  But because it begins with such a small thing-- eating a steak-- something most of us do all the time without thinking about it, it underlines how any obsession begins in the normal, in fact causes the normal to expand to contain things you once imagined impossible.  Before reading the story I had decided to have lunch after I finished.  I was halfway through making my chicken sandwiches before I realized that I was handling actual, once-living flesh.  It wasn't easy to go on after that, though being human I managed it.

I still don't think I've managed to get at how Justin Isis' fiction actually works.  Probably it's impossible.  I could come up with fancy high-concept labels "Raymond Carver meets Borges writing about eccentric Japanese youth," but if you don't share my sense of what those two writers are about, you'll never see what I'm getting at.  Perhaps the best I can do is to say that I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like is not, in the end, merely a shocking title; it is a sign of the mind-bending, genre-bending fiction you'll find within.  Justin Isis is already one of my favorite new writers, and this unclassifiable book is already one of the best of the year.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Two charity auctions to benefit the people of Japan

1) Johnny Mains is running an auction with (so far) 23 items of horror fiction interest, including books by Robert Aickman, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, Gary McMahon, Paul Finch, Joel Lane, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Shearman, Mark Samuels, Quentin S. Crisp, and Mark Morris.  Many items are signed, limited, or otherwise rare and special.  Go here to learn how to bid.

2) The auctions at Genre for Japan aren't live for another week, but I understand they've gathered some very nice items, so when the time comes you might want to take a look.

And, of course, if you have items you want to donate to either auction, you can contact them directly.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Edward Gorey

With the money I'm making by selling video games and tie-in books, I seem to be assembling a collection of Edward Gorey first editions.  I don't know quite how I decided to do this; I must have gone looking for copies of his first book, The Unstrung Harp, but I don't know what specifically spurred me to do so.  In any case, I found a signed first edition, first printing of that book at what I choose to believe was a bargain price, and bought it.  I received the book yesterday; should you happen to care, you may view slightly blurry photos of it on my LiveJournal.  Today I ordered a signed first edition of The Awdrey-Gore Legacy, and am considering several other signed and unsigned first editions from various booksellers.  All of which begs the question, why?

I'm not usually a book collector in the typical sense of the word.  I care about content, not presentation.  If there's any kind of price gap between the cheapest edition and the nicest one, I'll go for what's cheapest, and while I prefer a pristine copy to a worn one, I can make do with creases to save a few bucks.  And I've never much cared about signed books.  What exactly do you do with an author signature, after all, apart from looking at it once or twice for a few seconds?  But Edward Gorey, now, he seems to be different.

There are practical reasons to prefer the first editions of some of Gorey's books; they tend to be sturdier than later printings, and to better match his own presentation preferences.  But even if that weren't the case, I would want first editions, and while I wouldn't pay a lot extra for a signed copy, I'd pay more than is usually the case.  There are, I think, two reasons for this.  The first is that there's something about Gorey's works that almost demands a noticeably worn book.  It's so refined, so antiquated, so vaguely Victorian, that bright white pages and a fresh binding seem wrong.  The second is that Gorey's style is so unusual, so eccentric and distinctive, that one feels one is buying an encounter with a mindset as much as a printed book.  (That's the kind of sentiment I would hate in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, but with Gorey it's just true.)  A signature, the knowledge that the author handled this book, heightens that sense of encounter.

But what is Gorey's sensibility?  I have to be careful in describing it, because his work is easy to caricature, and if I make it sound like generic macabre humor, people might do what I did for a long time, and say, "I'm not at all interested in that."  Perhaps I should start with a quote, from The Unstrung Harp.  On this page, the novelist Mr Earbrass has just dropped the manuscript of his novel off at his publishers:
Mr Earbrass escaped from Messrs Scuffle and Dustcough, who were most anxious to go into all the ramifications of a scheme for having his novels translated into Urdu, and went to call on a distant cousin.  The latter was planning to do the antique-shops this afternoon, so Mr Earbrass agreed to join him.  In the eighteenth shop they have visited, the cousin thinks he sees a rare sort of lustre jug, and Mr Earbrass irritatedly wonders why anyone should have had a fantod stuffed and put under a glass bell.
That is all the text on this particular page; the facing page contains this illustration:

There's a lot to admire here.  The humor of the publishers being named Scuffle and Dustcough, of course, though that's a bit obvious, the kind of joke that wouldn't mean much if it were Gorey's full range.  But his sense of the absurd is much keener.  It's not just the translation into Urdu; it's the formal language in which it's described: "most anxious to go into all the ramifications of a scheme."  There's the notion of going to call on a distant cousin, with its air of old-fashioned etiquette, and the inherent retrospective quality of antique shops.  Not to mention the faint ridiculousness of the detail of the eighteenth shop.  And then words like "lustre jug" and "fantod," which have a suggestive sound even if you don't know what they mean.  The elegant, the disturbing, and the random: these are the components of Edward Gorey's world.

I'm not much on visual art, so I can't particularly comment on Gorey's drawings, except to say that they have much the same quality as his prose: fine detail, simple elegance, and an air of oddness or gloom that is subtle yet inescapable.  The oddly shaped heads of all the characters in this book are bizarre, and yet somehow perfect for its atmosphere, as is the distinctive fashion sense, parallel to Gorey's own.

Nothing much happens in The Unstrung Harp, which deals with "the unspeakable horror of the literary life."  This plotlessness is common in some of Gorey's books.  In others, disastrous things happen with alarming regularity.  One of his most shocking works is The Loathsome Couple, a picture book detailing a fictionalized version of the Moors Murders.  He is perhaps most famous for The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabet (one of many Gorey wrote in his fifty-year career) in which each letter is the name of a child who dies in a macabre or ironic way.  Apart from The Unstrung Harp, my personal favorites include The Listing Attic, a collection of limericks, of which the jacket copy says, "“The majority are macabre, some are nearly pointless, and five are written in what the unwary may take to be French;” The Fatal Lozenge, an alphabet of rhyming quatrains ("The Baby, lying meek and quiet/Upon the customary rug,/Has dreams about rampage and riot,/And will grow up to be a thug."); The Remembered Visit, a melancholy story about things forgotten and left undone; The Blue Aspic, featuring an unhappy dancer and her obsessive fan; The Awdrey-Gore Legacy, a send-up of the elements of the country-house murder mystery; and The Other Statue, a book that seems random and may perhaps turn out to be less so.

For those interested in dipping into Gorey's work, your best bet is the four Amphigorey collections, each of which contains at least fifteen individually-published works.  Gorey himself was ambivalent about the Amphigorey volumes, which can put as much as four pages of the original onto one oversize page.  It's certainly true that this format encourages one to read too quickly, speeding through books rather than savoring detail and mood.  Reading The Unstrung Harp in individual form, I noticed little touches I had missed the first time around (that the rejected cover for the fictional book of the same title is the actual cover of the real book; that there are legible words on the rejected sheets scattered around Mr Earbrass' desk; the sheer humor and faint sense of loss conveyed by the words "Bloaters?  Angus?").  But for those who aren't sure they want to pay $15 for a 64-page picture book, the Amphigorey omnibuses ($19 to $22) are a fine sampler, from which one can select books one would like to have in individual form.  (The list I compiled yesterday has 20 items on it, some of which, alas, are available only in signed limited editions that I can't bring myself to pay for.)  In the end, I suppose, the particular effect of Gorey's work is so indescribable that I can only recommend you check it out for yourself.  Don't read for narrative, because you won't find it.  Take things slowly, and learn to appreciate the method of his nonsense.  Believe me, it's worth it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales

The line between homage and pastiche is a tricky one for any contemporary horror writer to walk.  From the major figures of the 19th and early 20th centuries-- Poe, Machen, Lovecraft-- to equally admired and influential moderns like Thomas Ligotti, there are many worthy names from whom the writer can draw inspiration, but the question is how to show one's respect for tradition without producing tales that are stale and uninspired, or sublimating one's own voice to a poor imitation of a dead master.  Fortunately for fans of the classically-inspired weird tale, Mark Samuels has figured out how to strike the balance.  As Reggie Oliver, himself possessed of that gift, said in a review, "Like most writers who are confident of their abilities Samuels is not afraid to acknowledge influences... but the dominant figure is always Samuels."  The Man Who Collected Machen, Samuels' fourth collection, is a slim one, containing only eleven relatively brief stories in the new Chomu Press edition, but that's more than enough to demonstrate the truth of Oliver's statement.  Both readers interested in the history of the weird tale and those who appreciate its modern evolution cannot afford to miss this first mass-market-priced edition of Samuels' work.

Although I'd read bits and pieces of Samuels' fiction in various anthologies, The Man Who Collected Machen was my first full-length exposure to his work.  (I should be reading his early collection The White Hands before too much longer, but my copy is apparently still in the post.)  As I read the first story, "Losenef Express," I was uneasy.  The ending of the story wasn't terribly difficult to see coming, and while that isn't always a problem in a weird tale, in this case it made me impatient.  It was also distracting to have the protagonist, an overweight horror writer from Tennessee, described and thinking in the clipped, formal rhythms of Samuels' prose.  Despite this, the story did offer some striking images, particularly an unexpected, gruesome tableau near the end, and as I turned the final page I remained hopeful for a decent, if not spectacular, reading experience.

I got so much more than that.  I hadn't known quite what to expect from the second, title story.  Although I have read Robert Bloch's "The Man Who Collected Poe," which I assumed to be a loose inspiration, I haven't read much Machen, and what little I do know has made, I regret to say, very little impression.  It was a good thing for me, then, that "The Man Who Collected Machen" doesn't require any familiarity with that author, though there may well be little touches to reward those who know his work.  This is a traditional tale of a young bibliophile and a mysterious old man, told in a simple but powerful descriptive language, with a visionary conclusion that is, I think, very reminiscent of Machen himself.  It's also a meditation on what it means to collect, and to appreciate, the works of a particular author.

The next story, "THYXXOLQU," is the first of several stories to treat language as a virus, and has, I think, a touch of Thomas Ligotti about it, although it's by no means a pastiche.  It also reminds me of Robert Aickman, not so much in terms of superficial content as in the ambiguous nature of its supernaturalism.  The mysterious language that is infecting London may disfigure the very mouths of its speakers, but it also suggests new and greater realms of understanding than those offered by ordinary speech.  The story's ending, in which the terror and the promise of Thyxxolqu come together, is unsettling on the higher philosophical level of the best weird fiction.

"The Black Mould" is a work of faintly Lovecraftian cosmicism, but it turns that notion on its head by treating humanity as insignificant even with the perspective of the story, which is about, and from the perspective of, the alien menace that in Lovecraft is only ever glancingly seen.  The result is a six-page story of truly universal horror that inspired in me both a chill and a morbid chuckle.  By this point I had well and truly realized what a marvelous little collection this was going to be.

And the remaining stories largely lived up to that expectation.  There was one more that didn't do too much for me, the intriguing but underdeveloped "A Question of Obeying Orders," but the rest were uniformly excellent, from "Xapalpa," a grim tale of unusual pinatas, to "Nor Unto Death Utterly," a Poe homage that (as Poe himself only sometimes did) thoroughly lives up to its narrator's histrionic tone, to "The Age of Decayed Futurity," a story whose intensity and ingenious frame narrative elevate it about the cheap anti-Hollywood satire it might have been.  Too often when one reads that a weird writer has been inspired by "the classics," it means that he produces pastiches of his one idol, be that idol Lovecraft or James or Machen, and so his work has no variety.  This is not the case with Samuels, who can write about London or Mexico or "a crater on a dead world at the rim of the universe," about nineteenth-century resurrections or twenty-first century telepathy.

That last comes in during "Glickman the Bibliophile," one of my personal favorites from the collection and another language-as-virus story.  This one links philosophical pessimism with contemporary literary theory via an anti-book cult of shocking vehemence.  (The name of its leader, Janus Yaanek, is perhaps one of those rare cases where Samuels' acknowledgment of the past comes close to overegging the pudding.)  The third such story, "A Contaminated Text," is even better.  It begins like an encyclopedia article, takes in a secret society of delightful absurdity, and then takes several more viscerally and intellectually startling turns, including this eerie nightmare:
Those who loaned books from the library suffered from horrible, fragmentary dreams.  They dreamt of a decayed city of inverted steeples shrouded in a fog, of black stars in a blood-red sky, of being dead-but-alive, and of searching after a cryptic symbol of no human origin, a symbol which alone brought oblivion.  They were tormented by a voice seeming to call from a great distance, a voice muttering unintelligible words, a voice that bubbled and spat like hot tar.
The first ten stories in this collection also appeared in the first edition of The Man Who Collected Machen, an expensive hardcover from Ex Occidente Press.  The eleventh and final one, "The Tower," is new to this edition, and makes a fitting conclusion and summation for this visionary, literate volume.  Its concept-- an isolated thinker's philosophical journey, and the mysterious tower that appears to him, is a simple one, but Samuels' prose is pitch perfect, and the story's final page, although it may mean nothing at all in crude literal terms, means everything to the life of the mind.  And, though Samuels has a gift for strange and disturbing images, it is that life that is the true focus of The Man Who Collected Machen.  Mark Samuels, like the writers who have inspired him, is literate, unexpected, challenging, and, once you've made the effort, infinitely rewarding.  Like many distinctive voices, his is best encountered at length, in this or another of his collections.  Allow his simple yet hypnotic style to draw you in.  You won't be sorry you did.
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The Man Who Collected Machen is in print in an inexpensive edition from Chomu Press; you can also search secondhand booksellers for the slightly different Ex Occidente edition, but I shudder to think what prices it's fetching. The earlier collection Glyphotech is in print from PS Publishing at a decent price, while the paperback edition of The White Hands is also fairly cheap from Tartarus Press.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Noonday Sun: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

At the same used book store in Providence where I bought my copy of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: 20th Annual Collection, I once found what I believe was a complete set of Fritz's Leiber Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books. I had heard good things about these stories, but I've never liked buying books blind, and at that time I wasn't a great fan of the sort of sword and sorcery that I assumed the Lankhmar stories to be. So, as a compromise, I only bought the first three books in the series instead of all seven. (That I thought of this as a compromise is, of course, yet more evidence of my alarming book-buying habits.) And promptly failed to read them.

Then last month I was working on filling out a second order for a book sale I've pledged not to mention here again, and I remembered that I "only" owned the first three of the series. I told myself that buying the remaining four would be a good way to jumpstart myself into reading the series. This is not a policy that has always worked (I bought all of Elizabeth Haydon's Symphony of Ages books and only read two of them before giving the series up as a bad job), and as I begin reading Swords and Deviltry (the first in the series, more or less), I wasn't sure it would pay off this time. Leiber's style was odd, and all the talk of barbarians and civilization, warriors and wily women, seemed to be the kind of thing that has caused me to bounce off Robert E. Howard every time I tried to read him. But I persevered, and I'm glad I did.

The heroes of the series are Fafhrd, a tall barbarian from the cold wastes of the north, and the Gray Mouser a short, slim southerner.  Despite the difference in their stature, and some like variations in temperament, the two discover an affinity for adventuring, for travel and thievery and intermittent acts of heroism.  The whole vast world of Nehwon-- and beyond-- is the stage for their adventures, from their base in the city of Lankhmar to the frozen mountains of the north to the waters of the Outer Sea.  Along the way they meet wizards, ghouls, priests, kings, and stranger creatures.  You get the idea.

What prevents this from feeling like stock sword-and-sorcery is Leiber's style.  Naturally it evolves a bit, as the stories in these seven books were written over a period of nearly fifty years, but there are some things that remain constant. There's the mystical, fantastic strand, suggestive of the wonders of distant lands and ancient magic, that reaches back to the classical weird tales of the 1920s and early 1930s:
 Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries. Nehwon's known realms crowd about the Inner Sea: northward the green-forested fierce Land of the Eight Cities, eastward the steppe-dwelling Mingol horsemen and the desert where caravans creep from the rich Eastern Lands and the River Tilth. But southward, linked to the desert only by the Sinking Land and further warded by the Great Dike and the Mountains of Hunger, are the rich grain fields and walled cities of Lankhmar, eldest and chiefest of Nehwon's lands. Dominating the Land of Lankhmar and crouching at the silty mouth of the River Hlal in a secure corner between the grain fields, the Great Salt Marsh, and the Inner Sea is the massive-walled and mazy-alleyed metropolis of Lankhmar, thick with thieves and shaven priests, lean-framed magicians and fat-bellied merchants - Lankhmar the Imperishable, the City of the Black Toga.
But there's also a modern modern, ironic sensibility that ought to clash with the first and yet merges seamlessly, producing stories with the sensawunder of the pulps and the more intellectual leanings of mid-century fiction. Some of this play of vocabularies is captured by this paragraph from The Swords of Lankhmar, the fifth book in the series and the only novel:
Fafhrd, stretched out in a grassy hilltop hollow lit by moonlight and campfire, was conversing with a long-limbed recumbent skeleton named Kreeshkra, but whom he now mostly addressed by the pet name Bonny Bones. It was a moderately strange sight, yet one to touch the hearts of imaginative lovers and enemies of racial discrimination in all the many universes.
There are a number of wry touches like that, which prevent the stories from feeling too dated and too distant.  But they also work as good old-fashioned storytelling.  Leiber can describe a sword fight in terms that are detailed yet not over-elaborate, clear but not too simplified, and he knows to add enough layers of narrative complexity to keep the reader entertained.  It's not just the mysterious tower with its promise of jewels and threat of a guardian; it's also the lord who's chasing them with a band of soldiers, and the wizard who shares their goal, but for a very different reason.  Turns of the plot arrives quickly enough that the familiarity of most of the concepts rarely becomes a serious problem.

When the situation calls for it, Leiber is also capable of generating an atmosphere of awe and dread that will come as no surprise to readers of his horror fiction (which includes the justly-famous industrial ghost story "Smoke Ghost").  "The Sunken Land," for example, offers a Lovecraftian vision of a risen continent and its slimy tunnels, and the short novel Adept's Gambit includes an unsettling tale-within-a-tale of the bond between a reclusive, studious brother and his more adventurous sister.  There are also more fantasy-tinged descriptions of the uncanny and unusual, from the wares at the titular "Bazaar of the Bizarre" to the subterranean nation of Quarmall with its great vents and warring princes.  Leiber may not be as lugubrious a stylist as, say, Lovecraft, but he's just as gifted at suggesting the strange.

Naturally, given the five-decade history of the series, some installments are stronger than others.  As a rule the longer pieces are better; if it's under fifteen pages, it's apt to be too simple, too predictable, or too much like another story in the series.  Swords and Ice Magic, the sixth in the series, starts with several brief stories in which Death targets Fafhrd and the Mouser by various stratagems.  That ought to be brilliant, but the execution is uninspired and the premise quickly palls.  It doesn't help that these stories touch several times on the series' greatest flaw: its treatment of female characters.

I don't mind that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser treat women principally as sex objects; they're medieval rogues, what else should they do?  The problem is that the stories, as well as the characters, have no interest in women of any depth.  The series description at the front of several of the books promises "delectable girls a-plenty, some of the last having great wisdom and character."  I can't say I saw much of either quality; with a couple exceptions in the final books, the women of Lankhmar are capricious, shallow, and frequently cruel.  I think Leiber means to suggest that they have to be that calculating to survive in a world of phyically powerful, callous men, but he doesn't draw them with enough depth for this to come across, and the description of every single woman in terms of her body quickly becomes tiresome.  And then there's this deathless passage from book three, Swords in the Mist:
[T]hey forcibly prevented Ourph from raping even one of [the elderly witch-women], let alone all five as he had boastfully threatened.  [They departed, with the women calling down curses on Fafhrd and the Mouser.]  Their failure to curse Ourph also, made the Mouser wonder whether the witch-women were not angriest because Ourph had not been prevented in his most lascivious designs.
Ah ha ha ha no.  I'm willing to grant Leiber some leeway based on the genre he's working in and the dates of composition, but that's a little much.

These complaints aside, though, I'm very glad I stuck with the series.  Although Fafhrd and the Mouser aren't characters in any fleshed-out, literary sense, they make for charming rogues, and the description of their adventures, though elevated and poetic, is readable and often very funny.  Fantasy fans interested in dipping a first toe into the sea of sword and sorcery could do a lot worst than to check out the Swords books.
*     *     *
But where to begin?  The first book in internal chronology is Swords and Deviltry, and the earliest stories are included in the second book, Swords Against Death, but the continuity is loose enough that you can start anywhere.  I would recommend Swords in the Mist, which includes the fine short novel Adept's Gambit and the riotously funny religious satire "Lean Times in Lankhmar."  Used copies of all seven books, in many editions and a few collected versions, are plentiful.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

I'm sorry...

... but I'm posting to promote eBay items again.  In this case, though, they are at least of genuine interest to horror collectors.  I'm selling my copies of The Secretary of Dreams Volumes One and Two and Blockade Billy, all by Stephen King and published by Cemetery Dance.  You can see the listing, complete with photos, here.  I'm accepting best offers on these books; don't hesitate to make one.  And don't forget that I'm giving away a lot of other Cemetery Dance books here.

I finished the last Fafhrd/Mouser book yesterday, and had hoped to write the Noonday Sun post about the series today, but I'm down with a bad cold that has damaged my ability to form coherent thoughts.  (Yes, you in the back, "even more than usual.")  So later this week, I hope.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Free books

Here's the thing.  Most of the books I've been getting rid of in the past few weeks have either been sent to Goodwill or sold on eBay.  But I'm sick of writing up eBay listings, and the box of books I'm looking at now is a bit too specialist-interest to send to Goodwill.  It's a lot of small press horror fiction.  And since this is a horror fiction blog, I thought I might as offer these books to the few people who will stumble across this post.

These books are absolutely free, including shipping (which will be Media Mail in the US and whatever's cheapest for overseas). [Edited later to add: I hadn't realized how pricey overseas shipping would be now that the cheap surface mail options have been discontinued.  Overseas buyers, if you're asking for more than one book, it would be great if you could donate about $10 US to cover shipping fees.]  If you want to make a donation of whatever amount, there's a PayPal button over on the right; mark it as a gift so I don't get charged fees.  But if you don't want to make a donation, that's fine.  Free means free, after all.

Comment to claim book(s).  I'll confirm that everything's available, and you can e-mail me a mailing address at brendan(dot)moody(at)gmail(dot)com.

This offer is ongoing.  As long as an item isn't crossed out in the list below and hasn't been claimed in comments, the book is available, even if this post is months old.

Here is what I have:
Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet (GLBT horror anthology. trade paperback. very good/like new)
In the Closet, Under the Bed by Lee Thomas (short horror, often gay themed. trade paperback. very good/like new)
H.P. Lovecraft's Favorite Weird Tales (includes Machen, Blackwood, James.  trade paperback. very good/like new)
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (SF/horror time travel novel. trade paperback. very good.)
Occasional Demons by Rick Hautala (short horror from Cemetery Dance. hardcover. 1 of 750 signed copies. like new)
The Big Book of Necon (short horror/essays/art associated with the Necon dark fantasy convention. includes rare Stephen King story. Cemetery Dance. hardcover. very good/like new)
Elsewhere by William Peter Blatty (horror novella originally published in 999. with interior art by Alex McVey.  Cemetery Dance. small hardcover. very good/like new)
Old Flames by Jack Ketchum (horror novella. Cemetery Dance. small hardcover. 1 of 1000 signed copies. very good/like new)
The Woods are Dark by Richard Laymon (horror novel.  "The Original, Uncut Version." Cemetery Dance. hardcover. very good/like new)
Joyride by Jack Ketchum (horror novel. Cemetery Dance. hardcover. very good/like new)
Barfodder by Rain Graves (dark poetry. cover blurb from Neil Gaiman. Cemetery Dance. trade paperback. very good/like new)
Stephen King: A Primary Bibliography of the World's Most Popular Author by Justin Brooks (Cemetery Dance. trade paperback. very good/like new)
Halloween and Other Seasons by Al Sarrantonio (short horror fiction. two copies; both are Cemetery Dance hardcover.  one is trade edition; one is 1 of 1250 signed copies. both very good/like new)
Halloweenland by Al Sarrantonio (horror novel. part of the Orangefield cycle.  Cemetery Dance. hardcover. one of 1250 signed copies. very good/like new)
British Invasion edited by Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, and James A. Moore (horror anthology. Cemetery Dance. hardcover. 1 of 1000 copies signed by the editors. slight hole in dust jacket on middle left of front cover; otherwise very good/like new)
The Folks 2: No Place Like Home by Ray Garton (horror novella. Cemetery Dance. hardcover. 1 of 1500 signed copies. very good/like new)
Afterlife by Douglas Clegg (horror novel. Cemetery Dance. hardcover. 1 of 1250 signed copies. very good/like new)
A Chapbook for Burnt-Out Priests, Rabbis and Ministers by Ray Bradbury (miscellany including poems, essays, and other fragments. Cemetery Dance. hardcover. very good/like new)
Brimstone Turnpike edited by Kealan Patrick Burke and written by Burke, Thomas F. Monteleone, Scott Nicholson, Mike Oliveri, Harry Shannon, and Tim Waggoner (linked novellas with interstitial material. Cemetery Dance. hardcover. of 600 numbered copies signed by all contributors; this is a PC [publisher's copy] with no number. very good/like new)
The Number 121 to Pennsylvania and Others by Kealan Patrick Burke (short horror collection. Cemetery Dance. hardcover. Number 419 of 1000 signed, numbered copies. very good/like new)
one copy of Cemetery Dance Magazine #64 (a Bentley Little special issue.  new and unread)

Edit 3/21/2011: I'm now selling these items on eBay in a large lot with no reserve.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Three things, of dubious interest

1. I am now selling a number of video games and systems on eBay.  Click here if you're interested in some of my old Nintendo products.  Sorry for the additional self-promotion; this will be the last for a long while.

2. I am considering using this blog to host a giveaway of a number of horror fiction books I've collected over the years but no longer want.  Most of them are from Cemetery Dance Publications; authors include Al Sarrantonio, Kealan Patrick Burke, Rain Graves, Ray Garton, Jack Ketchum, Richard Laymon, and others.  If you would be interested in such a giveaway, please comment, so I can gauge interest.

3. I apologize for the lack of actual content over the past week.  After a book-heavy February, I've been busy with one thing and another and not doing much reading.  Coming soon, but not all that soon, are a Noonday Sun post on Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and a gushing appreciation of Tanith Lee's short fiction.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Kyle Murchison Booth

"What do your friends call you?"
I bit back the instinctive honesty of, I have no friends, and said, "Booth, mostly."
-"The Venebretti Necklace"
I am, it seems, incapable of judging many writers well on first reading.  For every author I've loved from word one, there's someone whose work I at first thought was flawed, or (worse still) barely noticed at all.  So it was with Sarah Monette.  Sometime in late 2007 I was at a used book store in Providence, Rhode Island, and on the shelf was a copy of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror for 2006.  (Too recent to be on most used book store shelves, but I think this was a review copy that had been dropped off there.)  It looked like new and was marked down from $21.95 to $7.50, so even though I had mixed feelings about the series I decided to buy it.

That was something of a fateful decision, as most of my current horror library has grown, directly or indirectly, out of that purchase.  And the number of authors I now admire who I first encountered within those pages is substantial: Christopher Harman, Stephen Gallagher, Margo Lanagan, Nicholas Royle, Kaaron Warren, Terry Dowling, M. Rickert, Stephen Volk, Stephen Graham Jones, Glen Hirshberg.  And, of course, Sarah Monette.

One of the horror selections in that book was "Drowning Palmer," about an introverted museum archivist whose unwilling attendance at a school reunion leads to a disturbing dream and a shocking discovery.  On first reading, I must confess, I had the same reaction to it that I often had to stories in YBF&H: it was well-crafted but not especially compelling or frightening.  But something about it must have satisfied me, because a few months later, during spring break, I found a copy of Monette's collection The Bone Key on the new books shelf at my library, and I decided to give it a whirl.

If you really want to see the god-awful paragraph long review I wrote back then, you can click here.  Even then, I didn't appreciate these stories as much as they deserved.  But before I witter on about me a little more, perhaps I ought to say something about the actual stories.
*     *     *
Who is Kyle Murchison Booth?  If you want a very short answer, the epigraph to this essay isn't a bad choice.  But for the more detail-oriented: Booth is an archivist at the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum, in an unspecified American city, sometime in the early 20th century.  He's in his mid-thirties, over six feet tall, and his hair is entirely white.  He finds even basic social situations and interactions awkward.  And he has far more than his share of encounters with ghosts, demons, and other supernatural creatures.

Or, to give the answer from outside the fiction, here's Sarah Monette herself, in the introduction to The Bone Key:
This book is a series of interconnected short stories, written between 2000 and 2006.  Their narrator/protagonist is a museum archivist-- neurotic, erudite, insomniac-- and he and his world are both homages to and interrogations of the works of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft.  They are, in other words, old-fashioned ghost stories with, at times, a modern sensibility shining through.
The key word there is "homage."  Which is a different thing from "pastiche."  These are not attempts to imitate the specific style of James or Lovecraft, but reinterpretations of their settings and narrative tropes.  So in "The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox," which I imagine had some basis in James's "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance," Booth goes to catalogue the library an old school acquaintance inherited from his uncle, and discovers something strange that links the library, the holly trees surrounding the estate, and the taciturn groundskeeper.  Where the more modern sensibility comes in is in Monette's deft handling of the awkward relationship between Booth and Wilcox, who were enemies at school and, lacking that, now have nothing much to say to each other.

But then Booth, solitary by nature, has nothing much to say to anyone.  After the death of his parents when he was twelve, he was raised by his father's business partner, a cruel man with a cruel wife who treated him as a waste of air and organs.  As an adult, he works, and sleeps when he can, and maintains cordial but distant relations with his co-workers, who respect his intellectual gifts but often don't know what to make of him.  He is, in other words, the sort of person a Lovecraftian or Jamesian protagonist might be, if they were fully-conceived characters rather than narrative markers.  (I don't mean that as a criticism of HPL or MRJ.)

Booth's narrative voice is likewise reminiscent of James and Lovecraft, though it lacks the light satirical touch of the former and the ponderous vocabulary of the latter.  He describes events and feeling directly, in a style that is formal but not florid, capable of dry humor (I treasure the portrait of the museum staff in "The Venebretti Necklace"), and easily readable in a way that too many homages to those writers are not.  Here's the opening to "Drowning Palmer:"
I had made the mistake of admitting that I had been at school with John Pelham Ratcliffe.  Ratcliffe was now an archaeologist of considerable repute-- although I remembered him as a pensive, unpleasant boy given to picking his nose in public-- and Dr. Starkweather, in consequence of a number of Ratcliffe's recent publications, had become determined to lure him away from the Midwestern museum which currently funded his excavations in Greece and the Levant.  Our Persian collection was (Dr. Starkweather felt and said, often and loudly) criminally inadequate, and Ratliffe was just the man to redress the imbalance.  Also, I believe there was a long-standing rivalry with the director of that Midwestern museum, but that was not a matter into which I cared to inquire.
I long to quote more, including the scene where the merciless Dr. Starkweather bullies Booth into attending his reunion and making a business proposition to Ratcliffe, but I suppose one paragraph is enough.

Why, then, did I not appreciate this story when I first read it?  Well, for one thing, I was 21, and still a beginner at recognizing and appreciating skillful, subtle horror fiction.  I was too focused on whether stories sent a shiver up my spine, which is a valuable commodity, but not the only one to which a story can aspire.  For another, I think the Booth stories work best once you've read a few of them, become familiar with their rhythms, and developed some sympathy for Booth himself.

Which is easy enough for me, since I am a lot like him.  I'm not a museum archivist or six feet tall, and my hair is falling out at twenty-five rather than going white.  But I know how it feels to have no idea what to say in a situation you know you ought to be able to navigate, to be intimidated by one's fellow students, to feel like someone to whom the entire world is naturally indifferent.  When I was in sixth grade gym class, we were playing some game where the teacher picked a student, and then the student selected a classmate to play next, or something like that.  Anyway, the point is that the teacher picked me, and asked rhetorically "Do you have any friends?"  But I answered honestly, with a quiet "No."  This was very amusing to my classmates.  You see why that quote from "The Venebretti Necklace" caught my attention.

But there is much more to admire in the Booth stories than their compact creation of a realistic, sympathetic awkward protagonist.  In her introduction to The Bone Key, Monette writes, "[the M.R. James tale] 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad,' is one of the scariest stories I have ever read, and I still can't figure out how James accomplishes it."  I know the feeling; despite multiple readings of James, and study of what critical literature exists on his craft, I still marvel at his ability to scare the living daylights out of me.  Whatever that gift may be, Sarah Monette has it too.

Over the past few days I've done a marathon (re)read of all the Booth stories that have been published, and this time around, nearly all of them gave me chills.  (A few didn't-- "Drowning Palmer" was one-- but they had other virtues, which I'll get to in a moment.)  From "Wait for Me" with its haunted mirrors to the building rage of "The Green Glass Paperweight," from the scrap-built creature of "White Charles" to the nightmare visions of "The Yellow Dressing Gown," Monette conjures up a wide range of supernatural horrors, some Jamesian, some Lovecraftian, some reflecting still other sensibilities.  Perhaps my favorite of the Booth stories, "The Wall of Clouds," is a novella in which Booth's time at a secluded convalescent hotel (the evocation of Booth's illness and resulting exhaustion, by the way, had me groaning in sympathy) brings him up against several different mysteries, which Monette weaves into a masterpiece of subtle horror.  By the time I finished the final story, I was so unsettled that my discomfort lingered after I'd put the book back on the shelf.  That's a rare occurrence indeed, and a sign of Monette's talent.

I can't neglect, either, the modern sensibility that makes the Booth stories something more than satisfying chillers.  "Bringing Helena Back," the earliest of them, paints in a very limited space the all-too-real picture of Booth's one friendship, if you can call his relationship with Augustus Blaine a friendship.  "The Bone Key" and "The Green Glass Paperweight" reveal more of Booth's tragic past, helping the reader understand how he came to be the man he is.  "Drowning Palmer" offers insight into childhood cruelty and lingering guilt, while "Elegy for a Demon Lover" explores the mutual pain of obsessive love. (Sometimes I amuse myself by imagining how James and Lovecraft would react if they were around to read that particular story.)  "Listening to Bone" evokes a response not so much for its child ghost as for the blind old man who has to face it.  "The Replacement" is a grim tale of a dutiful scholar's daughter and the sad dynamic of her family.  "White Charles" links the creature summoned by a long-dead alchemist to the underappreciated staff of the museum where Booth works, and reveals that not all monsters are malevolent.

And then there's "The World Without Sleep."  Nothing could have prepared me for this lovely dark fantasy, which I read for the first time last night, and which is unlike any of the other Booth stories.  It features a city populated by demi-angels, vampires, walking shadows, and goblins, reinventing all these creatures without losing the qualities that make the concepts so powerful.  As Booth's visit to the city progresses, his understanding of its power dynamics and moral structure gradually evolves, revealing a wonderfully complex and real system of mutual dependence.  And the goblins are a bit Cockney, which should be intolerably cute but is instead impossibly charming.

To date there are only fourteen published Booth stories.  That's a slim body of work on which to base a judgment, but it's enough for me to state confidently that Monette has mastered the traditional ghost story, modernizing some aspects of its sensibility while respecting its virtues.  The most conservative fans of the form may find some of their subtexts objectionable, but for those whose appreciation of literature isn't frozen circa 1936, the Booth stories are simply required reading.
*     *     *
The first ten Booth stories were collected in The Bone Key, which is available secondhand and will have a second edition later this year.  The other four were published in various magazines; one was reprinted in The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2010 Edition.  Free online texts of various Booth stories can be found at these links: "Wait for Me," "The Replacement," and "White Charles."  And here are links to download podcast MP3 versions of some of them: "Elegy for a Demon Lover" (read by the author), "The Yellow Dressing Gown" (read by the author), and "White Charles" (read by Kate Baker).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

OT: Self-promotion

Sorry for the utter irrelevance of this post, but I'm selling a bunch of stuff on eBay and thought there was an outside chance some readers of this blog might be interested.  It's mostly Star Trek books and one fantasy series.  You can see the listings by clicking here.

Thanks, and we now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.  Coming tomorrow (I hope): an appreciation of Sarah Monette's Kyle Murchison Booth stories.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

I first came across one of Edith Wharton's ghost stories in the Joyce Carol Oates-edited anthology American Gothic Tales.  I was suitably impressed by that story, "Afterward," to buy the imaginatively-titled collection The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton.  I read a few of the stories, and then, as often happens to me for no good reason, I lost track of the book, and it sat on my shelves for a year and a half.  Then, while looking for a relatively slim book to help me break my record for most reading in a single month (oh, the fun-filled life I lead), I saw it sitting there at the tail end of my horror bookcase.  And I thought, Why not?

In the preface to the collection, Wharton, like many early 20th century practitioners of the form, bemoans an assumed downfall of the ghost story, collapse of the fantastic imagination, etc., in terms that will probably seem overblown to modern readers aware that the ghost story has not, in fact, died out.  But she also offers what I think are sage words on the aesthetics of the ghost story:
The "moral issue" question must not be allowed to enter into the estimating of a ghost story.  It must depend for its effect solely on what one might call its thermometrical quality; if it sends a cold shiver down one's spine, it has done its job and done it well.  But there is no fixed rule as to the means of producing this shiver, and many a tale that makes others turn cold leaves me at my normal temperature.  The doctor who said there were no diseases but only patients would probably agree that there are no ghosts, but only tellers of ghost stories, since what provides a shudder for one leaves another peacefully tepid.  Therefore one ought, I am persuaded, simply to tell one's ghostly adventures in the most unadorned language, and "leave the rest to Nature."
That Wharton denies that the "moral issue" is not relevant to the estimation of a ghost story should not lead the reader to conclude that her stories are only light-hearted divertissements.  They are, in point of fact, almost always driven by a philosophical concern or a metaphorical connection to actual daily life.  "Mr. Jones," for example, is simultaneously a satisfying antiquarian ghost story, with the discovery of a family secret among ancient papers; an ironic reflection on the delicate balance of power between servants and masters in the early 20th century; and a genuinely dark piece of fiction with a mostly absent yet powerful and malevolent ghost.

One of Wharton's virtues is her ability to take the plot devices used in stock ghost stories and, by using her gifts for atmospheric descriptions of place and succinct evocations of human psychology, breathe new life into them so that they become terrifying all over again.  "Afterward," perhaps the single finest of her ghost stories, takes what could be a trite concept of ghostly revenge and turns it into a disturbing meditation on the nature of guilt and complicity and the sheer mysteriousness of the universe.  "The Triumph of Night" uses its ghostly forewarning of disaster to emphasize its narrator's isolation and fear.  And "Pomegranate Seed" begins with a ghost so narrowly metaphorical that it could seem like a joke, and treats its psychological effects so seriously that what started in humor ends in genuine despair.

There are a couple stories here that are non-supernatural.  I won't say too much about them because the absence of ghosts sometimes comes as a surprise, but I will note that both are satisfying in subtly different ways from the stories with "genuine" ghosts; one is almost bitterly satirical, while another is quietly melancholy and rather touching.

In narrative terms Edith Wharton's ghost stories, often concerned with the aristocracy, with old, large houses, and with shadowy spectres who have unfinished business, may sound too traditional for the knowing sensibilities of the contemporary reader.  But, like her friend Henry James, Wharton was interested in the psychological as well as the literal trappings of the ghost, and it's that interest that makes her ghost stories satisfying, relevant, and perhaps even unsettling to the reader of today.  Surely the point being made in the following excellent paragraph is timeless:
No, she would never know what had become of him-- no one would ever know.  But the house knew; the library in which she spent her long lonely evenings knew.  For it was here that the last scene had been enacted, here that the stranger had come, and spoken the word which had caused Boyne to rise and follow him.  The floor she trod had felt his tread; the books on the shelves had seen his face; and there were moments when the intense consciousness of the old dusky walls seemed about to break out into some audible revelation of their secret.  But the revelation never came, and she knew it would never come.  Lyng was not one of the garrulous old houses that betray the secrets entrusted to them.  Its very legend proved that it had always been the mute accomplice, the incorruptible custodian, of the mysteries it had surprised.  And Mary Boyne, sitting face to face with its silence, felt the futility of seeking to break it by any human means.
* * *
The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton is in print in an inexpensive trade paperback edition.  For collectors and those with money to spare, there's also The Triumph of Night, a limited hardcover from the good people at Tartarus Press, which includes four stories not found in the other version.