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Bewildering Stories

Marvin Kaye, ed. Masterpieces of Terror
and the Supernatural

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Masterpieces of Terror
and the Supernatural
Editor: Marvin Kaye
Publisher: Doubleday, 1995
Hardcover: $15.95 U.S.
Length: 622 pages
ISBN: 0-385-18549-9
Do something nice for yourself this Halloween. First, confiscate half the kids’ candy collection: chocolate is more appreciated by adults. Next, get hold of Marvin Kaye’s monster collection of horror stories, kick the fire into wake-up, and cocoon in your oldest and most comfortable chair with said monster anthology in one hand and your favorite libation in the other fist. Don’t come back up for air until it’s after midnight. Go to bed with visions of monsters dancing in your head. Or maybe you should leave all the lights on and wait until morning Well, actually only a few of the stories in this collection are truly shivery, but there’s plenty to keep you absorbed until the wee hours, all the same.

First we have the famous writers who were not always known for their forays into the horror genre. Ogden Nash contributes a typically humorous, take-ye-heed story of a sinister thirteenth floor. Dylan Thomas contributes a subtle, religious-themed, poetic story entitled “The Tree.” Tennessee Williams’s story “The Vengeance of Nitocris” was written when he was only sixteen (to my delight, Williams apparently went through a purple prose phase).

Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp” is funny and tightly written, though probably over-used in anthologies. Damon Runyon contributes his usual tough-guy tale, “The Informal Execution of Soupbone Pew.” Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Christmas Banquet” is a little hard to get through for modern readers from just the dated style of the prose, but “The Flayed Hand,” Guy de Maupassant’s brief story, is quite readable.

Patricia Highsmith, who is a modern author with plenty of practice writing suspense novels, contributes humorous “The Quest for Blank Claveringi,” which will give you a different outlook on snails altogether. Stanley Ellin, another modern suspense author, contributes “The Question,” one of the most thoughtful in the collection. Jack London does a sort of “Cask of the Amontillado” spin between country neighbors with “The Moon Face.” Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Black Wedding” is a psychological horror story and one of the most effective in the collection. There are more by famous authors, including Saki (H. H. Munro) and others, but they’re too numerous to itemize.

Of course we have the well-known giants of the horror genre, too. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” rightly kicks off the anthology. (This story, for those of you who are Dracula connoisseurs, is the one that originated the famous phrase the dead travel fast). Edgar Allen Poe’s “Hop-Frog” is sinister, sly and blackly humorous, a combination not many writers could carry off. The famous ghost-story writer LeFanu contributes a long-winded but atmospheric lesbian vampire tale, “Carmilla.” “The Music of Erich Zahn” represents Lovecraft’s usual over-wrought but effective monstrous-and-mysterious universe theme. Mary Shelley’s story “The Transformation” plays mind-games with its readers and its hero-villain. Robert Bloch is a well-known horror genre writer who contributes “The Hungry House,” one of the more standard-horror-shtick stories in the group.

Science fiction and fantasy authors are well represented here as well, which was one of the pleasures of this collection. The anthology includes works that I at least was mostly not familiar with from Theodore Sturgeon, Tanith Lee, Orson Scott Card, Craig Shaw Gardner, Robert Aickman, Parke Godwin, Richard Matheson (Twilight Zone) and M. Lucie Chin.

The focus of the anthology is certainly more on psychological horror than blood-and-guts. I do wonder why Kafka, the absolute master, is not represented. I at least find his works the most disturbing I have ever read. Nor is Gene Wolfe represented among the modern science fiction writers, although his Island of Dr. Death stories, as well as others, are chilling masterworks. But many of the stories in this collection have a humorous slant to them. I suspect Kafka and Gene Wolfe were just too chilling for this editor. I can’t say I’d like to read In the Penal Colony before bedtime either: surely the greatest monsters wear a human face, and no one shows us that more effectively than Kafka.

So, which stories get the prize here? Singer’s “The Black Wedding” and Orson Scott Card’s “Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory” are tied for the honor of the most chilling in the collection. Crowding on their heels are Robert Aickman’s enigmatic but compelling story “The Hospice, Graveyard Shift” by Richard Matheson, and “The Question” by Stanley Ellin. Except for Singer, who is, of course, one of the greatest short story writers of all time in my opinion, all of my remaining best-of authors listed here are relatively modern. There’s no doubt modern authors do it as well or better than the old-timers.

This is not a new book, but it’s a good one to check out or to buy for your home collection. At over 600 pages, you have a lot of reading. Recommended for Walpurgis Night or any other. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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