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Comparing Classics to Modern Works in Horror Literature

Sure, horror has come a long way. But it didn’t start in a bad place to begin with! When people discuss the horror genre at length, the names of the horror pioneers are bound

to come up. These writers paved the way for modern contributors to horror, but their walk along the gravel roads was an incredibly pleasing one for readers. In fact, many people prefer the original scare masters to a lot of the more gore oriented works of today.

One collection of stories makes it very easy to compare the settlers to the settled- The Arbour House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural, compiled by Bill Pronzini, Barry Malzberg and Martin H. Greenberg. This hefty anthology contains 41 stories, each by a different author, which are broken up into two categories- “grandmasters” and “modern masters”. The modern masters win out for quantity: there are 24 modern masters featured and only 17 grandmasters.

This treasury has a great sampling of works to get you up to snuff on your horror stuff. Each story is preluded with a little intro that gives some background on the author. The book itself is introduced with a foreword by the best known modern master, Stephen King himself. If I’m being entirely honest, the foreword was my favorite part. King can even make reading about reading creepy. If you have it, you have it and King clearly has it.

One thing to keep in mind as we delve a little further into the Arbor House Treasury is that the modern masters may not be the modern-est of masters. The anthology was originally released in ’81 so there are obviously some new stars on the horror scene. Really, the relevance of this book just goes to show how great the classics really are.

GRANDMASTERS

I don’t know how the order of the stories was chosen, but it certainly wasn’t by accident that the first name to appear in the bold, serif font of the book is Edgar Allan Poe. The story featured is Hop Frog- a tale or barbaric revenge. It is suspenseful because you know something is going down but you’re itching to know just what. Most short stories are void of a character arc; there simply isn’t enough time to develop one. But this story does show a change in the main character that is wonderful to watch. Unfortunately (for me, I mean) this is not one of my personal favorite works of Poe. While I’m only giving 4/5 scare stars, it is worth mentioning that most of Poe’s works are 5 star worthy in my books.

Next up is Nathaniel Hawthorne with his story Rappaccini’s Daughter. Hawthorne doesn’t have quite the notoriety that Poe has, but he does have the longevity. The intro to Rappacini’s Daughter states that this story first made its debut in 1846. I hope I’m still creeping people out in 130 years! This tale is a bit longer than the first. It tells the story of Giovanni Guasconti chasing a girl whom he probably shouldn’t have been chasing after and discovering his role in an… experiment of sorts. Trust me when I say that giving a classic a less than a stellar rating is hard. They are classics for a reason, after all. But they can’t all be the best- and this one isn’t. There is simply too much preamble for a less-than-horrifying ending. If the conclusion was scare-your-pants-off terrifying I would be much more apt to overlook the luke-warm moments leading up to it. The story was certainly fascinating, weird and interesting, but it only gets 2/5 scare stars.

Squire Toby’s Will by J. Sheridan Le Fanu is next on the docket. I have to flip through the story again as I write this- no points for memorability. Ah, yes. A classic ghost story. Ghost stories will never go out of style and Fanu’s introduction (which contains a typo! I’m pointing a shaky index finger at the editors!) says that he influenced such writers as M.R. James, author of Ghosts of an Antiquary. This particular piece scores a 3/5 on the scare star scale.

Next is a name that makes me shiver- with excitement. Bram Stoker. It’s nearly impossible to be a lover of horror and not a lover of Dracula. That said… am I the only who was unaware of the fact that Stoker had many notable books scratched out of his bed post? Well, apparently not. Stoker’s introduction states “…his most famous work has, ironically, diminished the shape and dimension of the oeuvre.” Well then, it looks like I have some reading to do!

I devoured the featured story- The Squaw. It was delicious. The setting is divine and the characters are instantly likable. The story gets creepy pretty quickly and it doesn’t take much longer to get gory. I understand that a great many people could do without gore- I’m not one of them. Keep that in mind when I tell you that the ending is exquisite. My first 5/5 scare stars goes to Stoker.

Next up, Henry James with The Jolly Corner. This story blurs the lines between the imagined and the concrete. For me, the best part of this story is easily watching the protagonist, Brydon, progress in his insanity. While this is fascinating, I was a little disappointed in the ending. I was all braced for a shock and… nothin’. 1/5 scare stars.

Ah. Winston Churchill’s “Man Overboard!” This story begins on page 135 of the anthology and ends on page 138. The ability to tell a story well in so few words is one that I especially respect. And this story is told well. Churchill didn’t trade in his descriptive language for briefness. In fact, one of my favorite lines in literature comes near the end of this story: “The moon, then in third quarter, pushed out from behind the concealing clouds and shed a pale, soft glitter upon the sea.” Simply beautiful.

Anyone who fears the ocean or drowning would probably be apt to give this story 5/5 scare stars. Personally it didn’t hit me hard enough to instill this fear in me (and the very best stories can make you afraid of anything). Still “Man Overboard!” is well told and memorable and it scores 4/5.

Theodore Dreiser’s The Hand is the next story featured. I always laugh at stories in which the main character keeps trying to talk himself out of knowing what he- and the reader- does know. But this story’s main character, Davidson, is thoroughly creeped out and watching other people be scared tends to put me on edge too. This story also gives an insight into the feelings of the supernatural being- a ghost, in this case- which I love. The ending was great too. A rational, scientific answer for something irrational and spiritual. 3/5 scare stars for Dreiser.

H.G. Wells is featured next with his classic The Valley of the Spiders. Most often Wells comes into the conversation when science fiction is discussed, but this story proves he could write horror equally well. He went with a theme that is effortlessly frightening- spiders. I mean, Dr. Suess could write a book about rainbows and ice cream and spiders and some people would still consider it horrific. So, you look at the title and you’re reading the story and its doing a great job of putting you on edge using classic tactics like the dog reacting to nothing and the characters egging each other on. The ending is open and you’re left to wonder if the remaining character will be so stupid as to subject himself to the horror again. Add in a little gore and some descriptive language and you’ve got a strong 4 scare stars… maybe a 4 and a half? Can I give half stars?

Ambrose Bierce. The Arbour House Treasury introduces him by saying that his work has been called “paranoid, malevolent, morbid and venomous”. What a fantastic set of words. As this was my first taste of Bierce, these words left my mouth watering. The meat was, however, a little dry. There’s some absolutely incredible language in this story- The Middle Toe of the Right Foot. Take for example, “Groping in intellectual darkness for a clue to his maze of doubt…” Wow. On top of that, I didn’t find the story the least bit predictable. I think it’s entirely possible that the story simply lacked the promised morbidity and it left me hungry… 3 of 5 possible scare stars. 3 and a half, now that I’ve started half-starring.

Prozini, Malzberg and Greenberg (the book’s compilers) heard my cry for morbidity and provided Lovecraft. It’s difficult to discuss horror without H.P. Lovecraft sneaking into the conversation. Pickman’s Model is the story included in this collection and it’s a doozy. It’s a story told in the first person in an extremely conversational style about a screwed up artist, which is actually to say a typical artist. (Yes, writers fit the bill too.) You pretty much have a feel for what’s going on so there’s no big surprise ending, but a plot twist is entirely unnecessary. Even without, this is the second story to get my 5 star approval.

Right on the heels of Lovecraft comes Robert Bloch with his story Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper. Anyone feel like debating which character in this story is the most Psycho? (Pun intended.) Because you could truly argue for either side. For me, this is an incredibly memorable story- one that will come up in my conversations time and time again I’m sure. 4/5 scare stars.

The Screaming Laugh by Cornell Woolrich is the next story in the anthology. This one has a bit of a whodunit quality about it, with the big reveal by the cop. Pretty straight forward. But, keeping in mind that this story is coming up on 100 years old, it was a bit of a trailblazer in its day. 4/5 on the scare scale.

I over use the word bizarre. I admit it. But the next story, A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, is certainly worthy of the word. This work is a necromancer’s dream. It was maybe a wee bit heavy on the preamble for my taste and maybe kinda light on the ew-factor but I would guess many readers would disagree with that assessment. My first instinct was to give it 3 scare stars but I can’t help but feel that might be deserving of 4… so 3 and a half it is.

I’m relatively sure that Theodore Sturgeon wrote Bianca’s Hands for all of us who have talked about different body parts as if they had their own identity. This story will make you rethink that practice. Another story where the characters are equally twisted- this time the debate would be between Ran, Bianca and Bianca’s own mother. I was actually kind of grossed out by this story- which isn’t a bad thing when we’re talking horror. 4 scare stars of 5.

“There are vampires and vampires, and the ones that suck blood aren’t the worst.” I typed this quote- an extremely strong line that stands out immediately- and then looked down to see that the book’s compilers began their little intro the very same way. Maybe I subconsciously remembered that and drew my idea from it. Or- and I’d like to think this is the case- it is really the best way to begin discussing Fritz Leiber’s The Girl with the Hungry Eyes. Put that line with the title and really no further explanation is necessary. Certainly not your typical vamp tale but certainly worthy of 3 solid stars.

Shut a Final Door by Truman Capote. My first thought after finishing this story was: wait, what just happened? While this is probably a comment on my own mental capacity and not Capote’s writing, it doesn’t bode well for my scare star score. Please let me know in the comments if you “got” this story in one go. For now, 1 star.

And concluding the Grandmasters we have Fredric Brown’s Come and Go Mad. May I just say I adore that title. I adore the story, too. Doubting one’s own sanity is a scary premise- if you can’t trust your own mind, who can you trust? This is certainly one of- if not the- longest works in the book but it deserves every page it takes. 4… and a half.

Okay for those of you who were skimming- no offence taken- the Grandmasters received 59 out of a possible 85 points. That’s an average score of 3.5. Let’s keep in mind that I’m scoring these stories against the other stories in the book. I feel very “who the heck are you to be giving the grandmasters of horror 2 scare stars.” Yes, that’s my current emotion.

MODERNMASTERS

Kickin’ off the modern masters is Evan Hunter with his story The Scarlet King. This story disturbs me because the assumed victim is a child. Kill off all the adults you like, but when we start talking kiddos, my tummy turns. The build-up is fantastic. One of those, “I know what is going to happen but I am praying that I’m wrong” type of stories. I can totally dig that. 3/5 scare stars.

Karl Edward Wagner is next with his masterpiece Sticks. The intro for this story states that Wagner has a background of “a physician with a deep understanding of human nature and human fears.” Sticks definitely puts that on display. This story has some great visuals and a bit of a surprise ending. 4/5 on the scare star scale.

Sardonicus by Ray Russell follows. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. It has a very gothic feel to it which I appreciate. The beginning was a little bit slow for me but the hilarity of the ending makes up for it. That’s right, hilarity. You know how people type “lol” but really they did some sort of snorting thing? I did that. In a good way. 4/5 scare stars.

A Teacher’s Rewards by Robert Phillips is the type of story that ends up making me throw my book in frustration- and this is hefty book to be tossing around willy nilly. I was screaming at Miss Scofield to get a freaking clue from the moment she opened her front door. HOW STUPID CAN YOU BE, WOMAN? Sure, I have added benefit of reading the story from a horror anthology, so I know obviously the outcome isn’t going to be good. Still, the naivety of the victim in this story is really something.

Sometimes I can’t help but notice the little things about a story too- like the way that Phillips used dialogue tags very sparingly. Makes for a wonderful flow. The vast majority of the story is told through conversation. The narration is minimal. I love this concept. It makes for a very quick and entertaining read. It is done so well that I didn’t miss the main character’s inner dialogue or the descriptive, flowery language that I usually enjoy. I think this story has to be the first modern masters 5 star story.

The Roaches by Thomas M. Disch works similarly to The Valley of the Spiders by Wells. It isn’t hard to scare people when even the title is enough to send people screaming. This is story is not what I would’ve expected, mind you. I can’t even fathom where Disch got the idea for this one. Have I let enough time go by since I last used the word bizarre? This story is that. 3.5 scare stars- the extra half point is for managing to nauseate me.

The Jam by Henry Slesar is a great little story. Very short, very readable. I love it as a fictional story. There is just one problem with it- it’s not scary. It doesn’t make me shiver, disturb me or even put me on edge. Honestly, I didn’t even feel like Slesar was trying to scare me. If these were just stars we were awarding, Slesar would get 4. But they’re not. They’re scare stars. And he only gets 1 of those.

Bill Pronzini opens Black Wind with a description of the setting that immediately puts you on edge. It’s cold, it’s windy, it’s desolate. The entire story is cold and uncomfortable and the mood is very powerful. The end is left open. It’s an impending doom that never stops, well, impending. 4 stars. And a tea to warm up.

Adobe James’s The Road to Mictlantecutli (how in the heck do you pronounce that?!) is a modern take on the classic idea of choosing good over evil. The devil on your shoulder vs. the angel on the other. Up or down in your last elevator ride. It’s pretty cliché- which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a fun little read. Worthy of 3 scare stars.

Next up is Passengers by Robert Silverberg. Not often do horror and romance cross- and maybe they weren’t meant to here either. Either way, I found this story more romantic than scary. I’m sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re judging my love life right now. This is another story that I enjoyed very much but thought it lacked a lot of horror factors- fear, gore, shock. 2/5 scare stars.

Aha! Here’s the type of love story you’re more likely to see featured in horror stories. The Explosives Expert by John Lutz contains a cheating wife, an angsty husband and is set in a bar. Need I say more? I like that the story is told from the bar tender’s point of view as it changes up what could be just another story of that formula. 3/5 stars on the scare scale.

Ramsey Campbell is featured next with Call First. Will people never learn to mind their own business? Seriously, this entire story could have easily been avoided by this Ned guy choosing not be so nosey. Of course, then I wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy this bizar- err, I mean weird- little tale. I had to read the ending twice; I thought I’d missed something. I hadn’t. Obviously the ending, then, is left open. Sometimes this is a good thing- a great thing. But this time I was left wanting something more. Something like the other 3 stars, as I’m only awarding this story 2 scare stars.

The worst- or best- thing about The Fly by Arthur Porges is that it feels like it’s not very farfetched. Some scientific dude could really come across some crazy sadistic fly in the middle of nowhere, no? The main character- the only character besides that sadistic fly and its prey- is never named. He is either referred to as “the man” or a male pronoun. It doesn’t take away from the story at all- in fact, it adds to the fly’s importance. 3.5/5.

Elizabeth Morton’s Namesake puts the “short” in “short story”. You can devour this story in two minutes flat. Clearly there isn’t any suspense or flowery language or… anything. The story barely even gets an introduction in the treasury. I had a glowing report for Churchill’s “Man Overboard!” which is only a little bit longer than Namesake, but this story fails to elicit the same sense of awe. If a story is going to be that short it better hit me hard- and this one fails to. 1/5 scare stars.

Camps by Jack Dann is perfectly explained in the anthology’s introduction: “Like all masterpieces, it is about what it is about at the same time that it is about many other things as well.” This is very obvious in Camps. On the heels of Namesake this story seems quite long indeed. It is worthy of 3 scare stars.

“…that what clever people have not yet learned, some quite ordinary people have not yet entirely forgotten.” Chew on that line from The Mindworm by C. M. Kornbluth for just a moment. The Mindworm is the Arbor House Treasury’s second story about a vampire that sucks something other than blood, so I can’t help but compare it to The Girl with the Hungry Eyes. I’ve always loved vamps but this anthology has opened me up to the non-traditional vampire in a big way. The modern story wins 1 more scare star than the classic- 4/5.

Warm by Robert Sheckley starts out in a very innocent way- a man lying on his bed contemplating love. But the flip over to darker matters comes quickly, dissolving the nice little feeling Sheckley let you begin with. And it gets grotesque pretty quickly. The visuals in a story can have vastly different effects on different readers. All I know is that what I ended up visualizing while reading was some effed up stuff. Terms like “flesh-clad skeleton”, “reaction machine”, “discontinuous lumps of flesh” and “vocal flesh” had me picturing these walking, talking masses of ground beef and faces that were lumpy out to the end of the under-defined noses. I was picturing things I didn’t know I could picture. 4.5 scare stars. Very cool story.

Transfer by Barry N. Malzberg is very werewolf-esque. Of course, the reader knows where Malzberg is going right away but he tells the story in a way that is compelling. An easy 4 stars.

Joyce Carol Oates. A queen. And of course, the featured story is The Doll. I truly believe this is a story that only a woman is capable of producing. Oates captures the main character’s anxiety perfectly. It is entirely impossible for me to read about how on edge Florence is without my own anxiety level rising. This is a great skill. The Doll has quite a complex story line for a short story, but it is well told and easy to follow. 4.5 stars for the lovely lady.

If Damon Comes by Charles L. Grant is sad. It made me want to curl up and cry. It could translate well into a movie that would come off as both eerie and tragic. Tragedy in and of itself isn’t horror, but this story manages an eerie feel long before the tragedy- the dead pet action and the fog really does it for me. This story comes in at a 3 on the scare scale.

Mass Without Voices by Arthur L. Samuels is exactly 2 pages long and when I flipped the page I expected to find the story continued on the third page rather than the title of the next story. I just didn’t “get” this story. I wonder if understanding Samuels’s inspiration would have helped me. Unfortunately, I don’t have this insight and am only giving a single scare star.

The Oblong Room is the second story in the anthology with a whodunit feel. Edward D. Hoch drags you through a seemingly open-and-closed case to give you exactly what I felt I was missing with Samuels’s story- a motive. The motive is creepy and cult-like and worth the read. It’s also worth 3 and a half stars.

William F. Nolan’s The Party has a very Hotel California feel to it. It’s a good story- why else would it be in this book?- but it didn’t feel to me like it belonged until the very last page. Sure, there’s some confusion and whatnot before that but it certainly doesn’t have a h