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.
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.
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.