Monday, October 24, 2005

Everyone hail to the pumpkin song

I love Halloween.

David J. Skal’s illuminating book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror is a must-read. Skal takes the genre seriously, and does an exemplary job of examining the social and historical contexts from which great horror and science-fiction tales emerge. The umbrella term “speculative fiction” has long allowed for much political and social commentary, disguised as simple monster films; it’s often a great way for storytellers to make points without having to get all obvious about it. Authors like Anne Rice and Stephen King get their discussion time, with a particularly interesting section on how Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” series dealt metaphorically with the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s. And it’s always fun to read about the controversies, too, from fun bits on the original screen adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein to a recounting of a 90s-era editorial in the New York Times that objected to the look of the Crypt Keeper, the “host” of HBO’s short-lived Tales from the Crypt series, because its emaciated resemblance was too reminiscent of starving Iraqi children(!). Skal’s work is well-researched and refreshingly nonjudgmental, and it’s a fun, juicy read to boot; also recommended as a companion read is his Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween.

Stephen King’s digressive Danse Macabre came along at a time when, if his On Writing is to be believed, his own bad habits were getting really out of control. Like any prolific author, King has had his peaks and valleys, and Danse Macabre, a book-length essay on the horror genre whose approach predated the aforementioned The Monster Show, was written just as his fictional work took a decade-long spiral into excess. Still, as a funhouse tour through King’s influences, likes and dislikes, it’s engaging and unpretentious, and he helpfully shines a spotlight on many lesser-known and/or forgotten genre works that helped shape his tastes. There’s a helpfully idiot-proof checklist of horror/sci-fi books and films, which makes for a great video-store decision-maker. And then, of course, there are the classic King white-knucklers: The Shining, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Pet Sematary and Misery, all terrific pieces of storytelling.

Gaslight is the online archive of a discussion group, hosted through Mount Royal College, “which reviews one story a week from the genres of mystery, adventure and The Weird, written between 1800 and 1919.” There’s a ton of great stuff available on the site, all public domain; old-school ghost stories from Oscar Wilde, Louisa May Alcott, William Makepeace Thackeray, Kate Chopin and Joseph Conrad reside alongside the usual suspects (H. G. Wells, O. Henry, Arthur Conan Doyle). There’s also a great selection of stories from Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-born, British-educated journalist who began his career in Cincinnati in the 1870s. Later in life he became a legal citizen of Japan, and his collection of supernatural Japanese folk tales, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things became the basis of a remarkable 1965 film directed by Masaki Kobayashi. Also sprinkled throughout are a number of excellent nonfiction pieces, including a particularly interesting essay by H. P. Lovecraft called “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”

Another good resource for horror texts online can be found in the horror section of short stories at east of the web.

The standbys:
- The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
- The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
- The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs
- Famous Modern Ghost Stories, edited by Dorothy Scarborough (1921)

Great scary tunes:
- Krzysztof Penderecki: Anaklasis, Threnody, etc.
- John Zorn: Magick and Rituals
- Michael Nyman & Damon Albarn: Ravenous
- Bernard Herrmann: Psycho

Great scary flicks:
- Ginger Snaps
- Diabolique
- Carnival of Souls
- Suspiria

1 comment:

psyche said...

I have read The Monkey's Paw, The
Raven as well as many of Anne Rice and Stephen King's books. I read a lot in my spare time (of which there isn't much) and appreciate the knowledge that there are others out there who seem to have the same inclination to read the things that I do.

I also lean towards crime fiction such as those by Tami Hoag, James Patterson, Stuart Pawson, Linda Fairstein as well as fantasy/science fiction.

I enjoyed reading your blog.