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Black Static


Foundation Stones

24th Jun, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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At the end of May I interviewed Derek Wright of Wordsworth Editions, whose range of Mystery & Supernatural titles, in eminently affordable paperback editions, have the potential to provide a solid foundation for any genre aficianado’s collection, and for a minimal outlay.

As a matter of general principle, I’m opposed to the idea of the canonical, where some, usually, self-appointed expert declares that his favourite books should be set texts for everyone, but at the same time I’m a book person and I love talking to other book people about what to read, swapping recommendations and appreciations.

So, here are my ideas on which Wordsworth titles are ‘essential’ genre reading, a top ten of the Mystery and Supernatural line, though I don’t guarantee that on another day I won’t come up with completely different titles:-

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

An obvious choice to start with. This seminal text has been a huge influence on both the Horror and SF genres, has contributed a new word to the English language and been repeatedly reinvented and retold in just about every medium you can imagine, and then some. A tale of hubris and man playing at God, inspired by a nightmare. And it was written by an eighteen year old girl. Chew on that, Miley Cyrus.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Another no-brainer. Stoker’s novel was not the first vampire story and certainly not the best, but it is the greatest, the one that thanks to its adaptations for stage and screen gifted us with the archetypal figure of the vampire as aristocratic bloodsucker, along the way providing a metaphor for Marxists and homophobes, feminists and Little Englanders alike. It’s a template text, reinterpreted for each generation and every niche market. Forget the Coppola romanticisation. Go straight to the source, and if you get the Wordsworth edition then you can also snag the bonus story Dracula’s Guest.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe was one of literature’s great iconoclasts, a writer who broke the mould, in his day more popular for poetry and criticism than for his fiction. Arguably the inventor of the detective story, he was a writer who revolutionised horror fiction, bringing to the Gothic melodrama a psychological acuity that elevated this form to a new level, one that has seldom been equalled. Stories like The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death and The Tell-Tale Heart are acknowledged classics of world literature and form a mother lode of the imagination that other writers have been mining ever since. What better buy than this in Poe’s bi-centennial year, unless it’s Wordsworth’s edition of the Complete Edgar Allan Poe.

The Whisperer in Darkness: Collected Stories Volume 1 by H. P. Lovecraft

Neglected during his lifetime, Lovecraft has since achieved cult status and is widely regarded as one of the most influential voices in horror fiction. He brought to the genre a wholly materialistic outlook, abandoning the trappings of religion and lip service paid to the idea of man as central to the workings of the universe. In his fiction, and specifically in those stories that comprise the Cthulhu Mythos, the cosmos is ruled by ancient deities to whom mankind is less than irrelevant. Among other delights, this collection contains Lovecraft’s first published story, Dagon, the groundbreaking The Call of Cthulhu and the short novel At the Mountains of Madness.

Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James

No collection of supernatural literature would be complete without some ghost stories, and the Cambridge academic Montague Rhodes James is widely recognised as one of the finest exponents of the form. Most of his stories were written for family and friends, and read aloud to them on Christmas Eve. The protagonist of a Jamesian ghost story would invariably, like James himself, be an antiquarian scholar whose lust for knowledge would lead to the discovery of things better left alone (not for nothing is one of James’ collections called A Warning to the Curious). James' most significant contribution to the genre of supernatural fiction, is that he dispensed with Gothic trappings and placed his dramas in a contemporary setting. Lovecraft thoroughly admired the work of James, a feeling the Englishman did not reciprocate apparently.

In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu

If he was dubious about Lovecraft, James had no qualms about the Irishman Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and was instrumental in the revival of interest in his writing in the 1920s, when he edited Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery. Wordsworth have published several titles by Le Fanu, including Madam Crowl, but if I’m limited to one choice then it has to be In a Glass Darkly. As well as Green Tea and Mr Justice Harbottle it contains the sublime vampire novella Carmilla, a work that was read by Stoker and is almost certainly, after Dracula, the most influential vampire text of all time. With its undercurrents of lesbian sexuality and psychological insights, Carmilla is a work that seems thoroughly modern to contemporary readers, even though it was first published in 1872.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

After Frankenstein and Dracula, Stevenson’s short novel is probably the most influential horror story of them all. Grounded in the idea of man’s dual nature, it is arguably the forerunner of all those tales of serial killers who outwardly appear to be perfectly ordinary members of society, while keeping the beast within. Like Baron Frankenstein, Jekyll pays the price of his own hubris in attempting to tamper with nature. The Wordsworth Edition (published under their Classics banner, rather than the Mystery and Supernatural one) comes with The Merry Men and Other Tales, several of which should be of interest to genre readers.

Terror by Night by Ambrose Bierce

The subtitle, Classic Ghost & Horror Stories, tells it all, as far as this volume is concerned. American Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary, was an arch-cynic with a barbed sense of humour, often seen in his work – one story contains a description of a corpse laid out for a post mortem, with the sardonic subtitle One Does Not Always Eat What Is on the Table.  If he’d lived today, one suspects Bierce would have been a Sam Raimi collaborator. This volume contains such influential and much imitated stories as An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, The Damned Thing, The Death of Halpin Frayser and An Inhabitant of Carcosa (Robert W. Chambers liked the name so much, he used it in The King in Yellow).

Ghost Stories of Henry James

James was a literary heavyweight, famous for such modern classics as Wings of the Dove, Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl (all available in the Wordsworth Classics range), but he did write a number of ghost stories and you can find them in this collection. One story is an acknowledged masterpiece of the genre, the uniquely disturbing novella The Turn of the Screw, filmed in 1961 as The Innocents, and starring Deborah Kerr and Peter Wyngarde.

The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson

A merchant seaman and bodybuilder, Hodgson is best known for his novels, especially The House on the Borderland but these stories detailing the adventures of Thomas Carnacki, one of the earliest psychic detectives, are well worth exploring. Included in this volume are two of his very best tales, The Whistling Room and The Hog.

Check out the Wordsworth website for more information on these books and the forty or so other titles that are available as part of the Mystery and Supernatural line. For the short story collections, click on the link to Amazon shown at the foot of each page on the Wordsworth site, and then use the ‘look inside this book’ feature to check out the Table of Contents.

And don’t forget to pop into Interaction and tell me which titles should have been on this list and weren’t.


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