Walpurgisnacht! Except for Halloween, there is no more haunted night of the year than April 30, Walpurgisnacht or May Day Eve, when witches traditionally assemble to celebrate their blasphemous Sabbath and pay reverence to the horned god. Unless you happen to be a witch, itâ€™s wise to stay indoors. There you might appropriately spend the evening enjoying some classic or contemporary tales of horror and the supernatural.
One hundred years ago, William Hope Hodgson was killed in action during World War I. To commemorate this sad anniversary, the Swan River Press has issued an exceptional new edition of Hodgsonâ€™s most famous novel, The House on the Borderland , with an introduction by comics giant Alan Moore, illustrations by John Coulthart, an afterword by novelist and essayist Iain Sinclair and an accompanying musical CD by Jon Mueller. In this 1908 classic, the unnamed narrator moves into an ancient manor, which turns out to have been constructed on the porous threshold between alternate dimensions or realities. This recluseâ€™s hallucinatory glimpses of cosmic Otherness grow utterly terrifying when Morlockian swine-creatures attack his fortresslike redoubt. To gauge something of the novelâ€™s power, imagine a psychedelic expansion of Poeâ€™s â€śThe Fall of the House of Usherâ€ť with comparable hints about brother-sister incest.
While one of Iain Sinclairâ€™s own urban fantasies involves the search for a reputed lost sequel to â€śThe House on the Borderland,â€ť Avalon Brantley, who died in 2017, actually produced her own in The House of Silence (Zagava Books). In it she drew additional inspiration from Hodgsonâ€™s brooding science fictional quest-romance â€śThe Night Land,â€ť the last published of his four novels. Alas, I havenâ€™t yet had a chance to do more than look at Brantleyâ€™s book, but it has already been widely acclaimed a sui generis masterpiece. Earn bragging rights by being the first on your block to read it.
As it happens, this recent publishing season has brought several other works that might be viewed as sequels, including The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray , edited by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press), wherein 10 writers pay homage to Oscar Wildeâ€™s witty, horrific masterpiece, â€śThe Picture of Dorian Gray.â€ť In â€śLove and Death,â€ť for example, Reggie Oliver reveals, in a style worthy of the original novel, that artist Basil Hallward created not just one, but two evil paintings.
Nina Antoniaâ€™s The Greenwood Faun (Egaeus Press) begins where Arthur Machenâ€™s visionary classic â€śThe Hill of Dreamsâ€ť ended â€” with the suicide of Lucian Taylor and the apparent loss of the book to which he had devoted his young life. A weary-hearted antiques dealer, however, discovers the manuscript and has â€śThe Greenwood Faunâ€ť printed in an edition of 10 copies. Antonia then tracks the impact of this ecstatic work on members of a single family, moving the action along briskly and introducing the ghost of the poet Lionel Johnson, pagan worship and even â€śThe Great God Pan.â€ť
That last phrase, not incidentally, gives Aaron Worth the title for his impressive compilation of Arthur Machenâ€™s finest supernatural fiction, The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories (Oxford). Along with much else, Worth reprints the episodic novel â€śThe Three Impostorsâ€ť in its entirety, while his introduction stands among the best essays ever written about the great Welsh fantasist.
Though lacking Worthâ€™s valuable notes, Arthur Machen , edited by S.T. Joshi (Centipede Press), provides an even larger selection, adding â€śA Fragment of Lifeâ€ť and â€śThe Great Returnâ€ťâ€” in which the Holy Grail works miracles in a seaside village â€” as well as the thrilling horror-mystery â€śThe Terror.â€ť After you become a Machen fan, and you will, youâ€™ll want to acquire The Autobiography of Arthur Machen and The London Adventure (Tartarus Press), in which the writer reminisces about his childhood in Wales and his bohemian life in the 1890s and beyond.
A somewhat younger contemporary of Machen, Richmal Crompton â€” still revered for her â€śJust Williamâ€ť childrenâ€™s books â€” was also the author of the scarce and much sought-after Mist and Other Ghost Stories , now reissued by the Sundial Press. In one particularly striking story, â€śRosalind,â€ť a feckless and wealthy young man realizes how much he loves his castoff mistress only after she and their child are dead. It ends, in an odd way, happily.
During the 1950s and â€™60s, Britainâ€™s two foremost practitioners of the â€śstrange storyâ€ť were Rosemary Timperley and Robert Aickman. Until From Another World and Other Ghost Stories (Sundial Press), Timperleyâ€™s work could only be found in scattered anthologies, even though Roald Dahl chose two of her ghostly tales as being among the 14 best in English. Read â€śHarryâ€ťâ€” about a little girlâ€™s seemingly imaginary playmate â€” to see how terrific Timperley is.
As for Aickman: Nobody ever quite understands his stories, but nobody ever forgets them either. A new paperback selection, Compulsory Games (New York Review Books), usefully reprints lesser-known works and includes a smart introduction by Victoria Nelson. Still, a reader new to these exquisitely enigmatic stories should probably start with inexpensive, secondhand copies of the Scribnerâ€™s collections, â€śCold Hand in Mineâ€ť and â€śPainted Devils.â€ť
Certainly something Aickmanesque faintly suffuses three recent books by contemporary masters of the literary weird tale. Each story in Mark Samuelsâ€™s The Prozess Manifestations (Zagava Books) alludes to a mysterious Dr. Prozess; Mark Valentineâ€™s The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things (also Zagava) comprises both short fiction and engaging reflections on used-book shops and similarly mystical places; and the disorienting title story of R.B. Russellâ€™s superb Death Makes Strangers of Us All (Swan River) takes us into an â€śunreal cityâ€ť straight out of Kafka or Borges. All three are highly recommended.
Let me close with a final treat: a DVD from Nunkie and Thomthom Productions of Oh, Whistle, and Iâ€™ll Come to You, My Lad , M.R. Jamesâ€™s masterpiece of slowly mounting terror, here performed by Robert Lloyd Parry. Iâ€™ve heard Parry twice in live one-man shows and he is absolutely, utterly mesmerizing.
Michael Dirdaâ€‰reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.