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Fiz 10.19.05

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Ghastlies, ghosts, ghouls, and gators

Be afraid! Be very, very afraid! Ghastlies, ghosts, and ghouls are the order of the season. All right, maybe not.

Let's face it: Scaring people isn't so easy anymore. If nothing else, we've become acclimated to fear. Natural disasters abound and horrific stories grace our television screens all day long. Alternatively, scary stories have been told since someone first wanted a little nookie by the fire. Halloween demands something a bit different.

You should know this: I have a stuffed baby alligator. Currently, it's perched on a wall. The poor, dead beast passed down in my family from brother to brother like a bad reputation in middle school.

A long time ago, when I was still green, in the Berkshires, when everything was brown, I ran a weird old mansion at the end of a weird old street. I was cook, janitor, and houseboy. One October night I was called upon to provide some entertainment for some young'uns out by the campfire. I hid the gator carcass under my jacket. I spun some yarn, mixing equal parts urban myth and ancient specter. I don't remember the details of the tale rightly, but the conclusion allowed me to whip out my mummified reptile and wave it spookily at the audience. I seem to recall that one of the youths puked.

There's nothing like a good scary story. And you don't need to make it up yourself. People who scare people, it turns out, like to do so in print as well as around the campfire.

Poe and King, Straub and Koontz are reasonably accessible, but let's surprise the kids this year. Independent houses are publishing some of the best spooky stories in small runs (usually less than 1000 books --- sometimes much less). This often makes the books expensive, but they also come with all sorts of frightening bonuses, like slipcases, author signatures, artist sketches, and vials of blood.... Horror authors are a different breed.

Ash-Tree Press (www.ash-tree.bc.ca) started in 1994 in Wales with 150 copies of a quintet of frightening stories. Three years later, the operation moved to Canada. Hundreds of macabre stories later, the press is going strong, with paperback and hardback editions. Ash-Tree took its name from a tale by the man who dragged the ghost story away from the campfire and into the modern era, M.R. James. An English don who developed a reputation for telling spooky tales, James gave in to the clamor and published his first collection a century ago. These eerie narratives remain the standard against which all ghost stories must be measured. Classic ghost story collections often have one or two.

Almost 15 years ago, the owner of a Cleveland bookshop offered me free copies of Cemetery DanceMagazine (www.cemeterydance.com) and Zippy Comics. Apparently they had been shipped to him as a promotion in the hope that he could inspire some interest among his clientele. No one else was interested. I took both, acting pleased, but I was a little put off by the Cemetery Dance cover. For weeks, the scary little magazine sat on the table, mocking my fear. When I cracked the cover, I was addicted. Then, they started publishing books. Over the years, all the big names have cropped up in Cemetery Dance Publications, because they do fancy books with all the geegaws: limited editions, slip-cased, signed, black gold, in Beverly Hills. Children's stories to splatterpunk have all been treated with the care usually reserved for Easton Press pablum.

Arkham House (www.arkhamhouse.com) is the granddaddy of the creepy small presses. Started in 1939, Arkham had the primary intent of keeping the freaked-out oeuvre of H.P. Lovecraft in print. The wonderful story, Pickman's Model, alone, was worth the effort. Near the end of World War II, Arkham expanded its mandate to include books about Lovecraft, or his characters... or his friends... or the publisher's friends. In recent years, the mandate faded away and science fiction books tended to dominate the Arkham catalog, but the world would have had a few less cold shivers and willies without their efforts.

--- Craig Brownlie

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