On Sunday, September 22nd (4:44PM, EDT), the season of autumn arrives. Twelves hours of daylight, and twelve belonging to darkness. At night, temperatures will dip below 50 degrees. Brittle leaves will claw and scrape the sidewalks and streets of our neighborhood. In that house on the hill, one window is lit with an amber glow, and we watch as shadows stretch and bend behind the closed curtains. In Autumn, our thoughts may darken around the edges. Our moods may thicken and weigh us down. Yet with the early sunset comes the natural tendency to eye our bookshelves for a read that becomes one with the season. In those hours approaching midnight, we will welcome the literature of the occult, the macabre, the horrific.
Here are some selections off my shelves that I’ve already read, or have stacked at the top of the towering to-be-read pile.
SCREAM QUIETLY – The Best of Charles L. Grant (PS Publishing)
Grant’s short stories gently deviate between quiet menace and horrible revelations. Most of the tales in this collection evoke the melancholic and desperate mindset that comes with living in the Northeast, and the four seasons that fill in another year. Rendered like heartfelt poems of the dead, Grant’s tales contain a sense of atmosphere that is rarely rivaled. He writes eloquent obituaries where shadows breathe and move against light as though sentient, and he diligently plots his death poems for the lost and the unforgiven. This collection is a must, and at 500+ pages, will keep you company well past midnight. And he sure could come up with great titles — ‘The Soft Sound of Wings’,’A Garden of Blackred Roses’, and ‘Through All His Blood Runs Shadow.’
The opposite of Grant’s quiet horror is the fiction of Karl Edward Wagner, who can softly stain his page with subtlety, but at times, tears at the reader with sharp talons before whispering a deathwish poem in their ear.
The first volume from Centipede Press contains his most well-known and well-regarded fiction (‘Sticks’, for example), however this volume delves more into the author’s more personal dark side. Stories parallel the man’s all-too-short life; a couple’s separation and the gruesome loneliness that guides a lonely writer into a hallucinatory hell; a psychiatrist who walks the corridors of a decaying psychiatric hospital in hopes to separate meaning from madness; an actress with dreams of being a Hollywood starlet scrapes the bottom of the city, handed the shit-end of a life peopled with the sinful and the horrible. These are tales loaded with downward spirals and disappointments. Some say that these tales read ‘too vicious and bleak’, but doesn’t horror need, and require, such pain, and at times, self-loathing and repulsion? Wagner sure the hell could write honest and harrowing tales. In some stories he’s evoking Robert Bloch writing X-rated nasties, and in others, possessing Jim Thompson working his pulp fiction into horrific territories, as if he were writing for Weird Tales, not True Crime. Wonderfully bleak, and not for moods at their weakest.
THE OCTOBER COUNTRY by Ray Bradbury (Del Rey Reprint)
There are few collections of supernatural tales that can rival this gem (one that does is Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Demon in Daylights’). Penned for the pulp rags by a young Ray Bradbury, the stories have all the essentials of horror fiction, and while using the earnest and the poignant in his writing, he never loses hold of the magic that borders our cities and our suburbs. Funhouses become sanctuaries of remorse and pain. Carnivals become cathedrals. Families expose secrets best left in the dark, and shadows lengthen before night fills the skies. From the tragic imagery of ‘The Lake’ and ‘The Cistern’ to the absurdist and cruel ‘The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone’ and ‘The Crowd’, there’s not a lackluster story in the collection. And who can forget the poor dwarf in the funhouse, dreaming of being normal as his reflection misguides him? And remember, don’t open what is in that jar, or be prepared to witness a familiar face. Classic is an understatement when discussing this book. When I want to feel young again, I always turn to ‘The October Country’. It’s like an old friend telling you ghost stories you’ve already heard, but come the climax, still feel as vibrant and alive as they were when you first were told them.
The season is just beginning, and they’ll be more to come.