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HORROR STORIES: CLASSIC TALES FROM HOFFMANN TO HODGSON. *****

 Edited by Darryl Jones. RRP £8.99. 510pp

 Out now from Oxford World's Classics.

 

Perfectly timed to add extra chills to coming dreary winter evenings, Oxford World's Classics have released this excellent paperback collection of 29 classic horror short stories. For those brave enough to quietly cuddle up with this tome in your chamber, after putting your raven on silent, you'll be in for ghoulish yarns featuring frightful barometer sellers, unnecessary dental surgery, lovers bricked up in closets, premature burial and all manner of weird and wonderful mad scientists and cursed heirlooms.

 

Darryl Jones has crafted a fantastic compilation; there are no fillers, all killers (literally in many cases). All the big names are here; Poe, Dickens, M.R. James, alongside more obscure, yet equally talented, writers such as Ronald Ross and Francis Marion Crawford.

 

An added bonus with this collection is the detailed introduction by Jones, providing historical context, and the extensive explanatory notes at the end. However, if you are usually hesitant about reading classic literature, don't let this dissuade you. None of these stories is inaccessibly academic, and the notes are never necessary for your enjoyment but are merely for anyone with a burning curiosity to find out who the hell Chamfort the Duc de Fronsac was.

 

The type of horror featured is pleasingly varied. There's the campy grand Guignol of Bram Stoker's THE SQUAW, in which an annoying American stereotype, Elias P. Hutcheson (who says things like ‘‘Why I'm as tender as a Maine cherry tree’'), THIRD WHEELS with a honeymooning couple and, as often happens, accidentally dashes a kitten's brains out, sending the mother cat on a vendetta culminating in a face-off in a torture tower.

 

Then there's the more psychological THE MAN IN THE BELL by William Maginn which, in spite of the least promising opening line in horror fiction; ‘‘In my younger days, bell-ringing was much more in fashion among the young men […] than it is now’’, was a pleasantly disturbing surprise. It focuses on the simple, yet effective, premise of a man going insane with fear trapped in a belfry underneath a massive ringing bell.

 

THE DERELICT by William Hope Hodgson, with its descriptions of the uncanny pulsating surfaces of an abandoned ship, and NOVEL OF THE WHITE POWDER by Arthur Machen, with its stories of the mutating effects caused by the titular powder, both contain gooey David Cronenberg-esque body horror; ‘‘upon the floor was a dark and putrid mass, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing before our eyes […] out of the midst of it shone two burning points like eyes, and I saw a writhing and stirring of limbs’’.

 

I found CHICKAMAUGA viscerally and emotionally horrifying as it deals with the very real, and gruesomely described, horrors of warfare. It concerns a little boy, lost in a wood, encountering dying and disfigured soldiers. Thinking it's only a game because they remind him of clowns with their red faces and weird movements, the boy just laughs. It's such an unpleasant and tragically human picture that Ambrose Bierce paints, and so this particular story really got to me.

 

Then for a goofier darkly comic romp, there's THE ADVENTURE OF LADY WISHAW’S HAND by Richard Marsh. The titular hand crawls around on pillows, throttles people and even gooses men in the smoking room of a private members club.

 

The last which I'll mention is THE TARTARUS OF MAIDS by Herman Melville as it stretches the definition of horror. There are no supernatural menaces, but instead merely the banal horrors of factory labour. I found it an unusual choice for the collection, but it's refreshing that Jones didn't stick to the apparent horror canon.

 

Those readily immersed in horror short fiction are not going to find anything unfamiliar here but should appreciate having the cream of the crop in one easily accessible package. Those who dabble, only knowing the most famous stories, will find those stories here peppered amongst offbeat choices that will send them scrambling down rabbit holes looking for more. Those that have not dared venture into classic horror should buy this collection immediately, and they’ll be hooked and buying coffins filled with Poe and M.R. James anthologies before Christmas.

 

John Upton

 

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This web site is owned and published by London FrightFest Limited.

FrightFest is the registered trade mark of London FrightFest Limited.
 © 2000 - 2018