The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell’s reprinted 1981 novel The Elementals conclusively answers a question that I’ve been wondering for years: why are there so few classic haunted house stories?  I’ve always been a fan of such stories, or more generally “old dark house” stories, as Orrin Grey refers to them in the introduction to Benighted.  However, until recently I could only think of a handful of truly classic ones at most, such as Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971), and of course Stephen King’s The Shining (1977).

The answer to my question?  It turns out that many great “old dark house” stories, like the houses featured in them, have been lingering in obscurity, unattended to, dark and silent, waiting for someone to come along and uncover their secrets.  Valancourt Books has done an admirable job bringing many of these stories to light recently; I have spoken fondly in the past about Jack Cady’s The Well (1980), and I have now been blown away by The Elementals.


The novel begins at the funeral of Marian Savage, the matriarch of the venerable southern Savage family.  After the ceremony — which includes an unscheduled, bizarre and horrifying interlude — the Savage and McCray branches of the family decide to head down to the Alabama coast for the summer, to the remote and aging refuge of Beldame.  There, three Victorian houses stand: one each for the Savage and McCray families, and a third that is abandoned and slowly being consumed by a massive sand dune.  Nobody knows, or seemingly ever knew, who owns that third house.

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No Songs for the Stars, by Mary SanGiovanni

I’m rather intrigued these days by the concept of chapbooks, short typically inexpensive books that first became popularized in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I guess they never really went away, but recently I’ve been seeing — or noticing — more of them being printed.  The first one I picked up was Corley and Grey’s charming Gardinel’s Real Estate, and very soon afterwards I saw a tweet about No Songs for the Stars, by Mary SanGiovanni.

Published by White Noise Press, it comes in an elegant envelope.

Published by White Noise Press, it comes in an elegant envelope.

In this blend of noir and cosmic horror, the Sulphur City Police have finally captured a serial murderer of children.  Under interrogation, the killer cryptically tells the police to “Check the wall,” and explains how he has received messages from beyond on it, telling him to… do things.  Though most of the department dismisses these statements as the ravings of a lunatic, Lieutenant Gina Maldonado is curious enough to investigate — and she will uncover the horrible secret within the walls.

No Songs for the Stars is an elegant story, well-written and compelling.  It is only 20 pages long, as one would expect for a chapbook, but also like most chapbooks it is a beautiful printing that includes an excellent cover and eerie interior illustration.

As I noted about Gardinel’s Real Estate, the mixture of art and literature in chapbooks is really quite effective and is reminiscent of the older magazine tradition of illustrating all their stories, such as those I recently dug up for my Halloween Treats.  I’m going to have to snoop around for more chapbooks in the future!

I’m also going to have to snoop around for more of Mary SanGiovanni’s writing, as this is the first piece I’ve had the chance to read! No Songs for the Stars is an excellent, atmospheric tale.

Update: I should also note that, like most chapbooks, it is a limited edition signed printing.  Only 150 were printed, though at the time of posting it seems that some are still available for purchase.

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The Great Sausage Duel of 1865

(Tip o’ the hat to Blake Stacey for first pointing this story out to me!)

The history of science is filled with macabre tales of self-experimentation, amoral experimentation on others, horrific accidents, and even mysterious and sinister disappearances. Perhaps the most unusual tale I’ve come across, however, involves an alleged duel — not with swords or guns, but with sausages.

"Choose your weapon, sir."  German Bratwurste, via Wikipedia.

“Choose your weapon, sir.” German Bratwurste, via Wikipedia.

The opponents in this duel are as incongruous as the choice of weapons.  On one side, we have the formidable Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), the Minister President of Prussia, appointed by and second only to the King himself.  On the other side, we have the energetic, clever and contradictory scientist and politician Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), leader of the Progressive Party in the Prussian legislature (Landtag).

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Halloween Treats 2014

(Update: It cost me a good deal of my sanity, but I think I fixed “The Monkey’s Paw” pdf to load quickly in browser.)

It’s that time again to post a collection of “Halloween Treats”: classic ghost and horror stories to be read in the dark of night!  I’ve been doing this since 2007, and you can read the old editions here:   2007200820092011, 2012 and my 2010 post on the true story of the “Lady of the Lake“. It is likely that not all of the links in those old posts work, but the lists are there.

As a special treat: I tracked down, whenever possible, pdfs of the original publications!  Many of them include excellent illustrations, a tradition that I would like to see return in horror.

This year’s selections:

The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs (1902).  Somehow I’ve never included this classic tale of wishes gone awry in my posts! Though it is so well-known as to seem clichéd, it is a story of surprisingly subtlety.  Note, in particular, the sergeant-major’s terse and unsettling description of the paw’s history.

Lot No. 249, A. Conan Doyle (1892).  Best known for his stories of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle also wrote a number of potent horror stories.  In Lot No. 249, a tale of an Egyptian mummy takes on a particularly diabolical twist.  If you want to see the pictures in a good quality, check out this link!

Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, M.R. James (1895).  A story by an undisputed master of ghost stories, M.R. James! In this tale, the Englishman Dennistoun happens across — and purchases — and old scrapbook from a local Frenchman.  Oddly, however, the man knowingly sells the book well below its value, despite Dennistoun’s good-natured offer to give more.  Dennistoun soon learns that his new acquisition comes with a rather unpleasant passenger…

The Haunted and the Haunters: Or the House and the Brain, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1859).  Bulwer-Lytton is most remembered today for his ridiculously dramatic prose, such as “It was a dark and stormy night…”  As I have noted on this blog before, however, he was a very effective author at times.  The Haunted and the Haunters is considered one of the best haunted house stories of all time, and it contains a rather bizarre epilogue.

Shiva, Open Your Eye, by Laird Barron (2001).  I’m a huge fan of Laird Barron’s work, and I consider him one of the best authors of horror working today.  A few of his stories are freely available to read online, including Shiva, Open Your Eye.  In this story, a government man comes poking around on a farm in Eastern Washington state.  What he finds at the farm, and within the barn in particular, is more than he bargained for, or could even comprehend.

The Undying Thing, by Barry Pain (1901).  Sir Edric’s crimes bring a curse down on his family, and his second wife gives birth to a monstrous child.  Decades later, the monstrous offspring returns from the wild to end the lineage.

Huguenin’s Wife, by M.P. Shiel (1895).  M.P. Shiel wrote a number of classic stories of the weird and horrific, including the apocalyptic novel The Purple Cloud.  In Huguenin’s Wife, the narrator is desperately summoned by his friend Huguenin to his home on a secluded Greek isle.  Huguenin’s wife has died, but she may not have been human to begin with.

Luella Miller, by Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman (1902).  Wilkins-Freeman is one of the greatest writers of ghost and horror stories of all time.  In Luella Miller, she tells the story of a vampire of a subtle but still deadly nature.

Enjoy the stories, and Happy Halloween!

Don't get caught by a mummy! From "Lot No. 249."  (source)

Don’t get caught by a mummy! From “Lot No. 249.” (source)

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Gardinel’s Real Estate, by M.S. Corley and Orrin Grey

I love “old dark house” stories!  Such stories, which involve a group of people gathered or trapped in a sinister house and subjected to horrors, include haunted house stories but are not limited to stories about ghosts.  I first learned the term “old dark house” via Orrin Grey’s introduction to the excellent 1927 novel Benighted, which led to the 1932 film “The Old Dark House.”

Grey has taken his own love of old dark houses much further than me!  He and M.S. Corley recently published a lovely little chapbook, Gardinel’s Real Estate.


This short 32-page book is a real estate guide for old dark houses, with illustrations of each house given by Corley and written descriptions given by Grey.  The drawings are beautiful, and the descriptions utterly charming, involving forbidden experiments, vampirism, ghosts, and more.  It is not a long read — I read it in its entirely one night before bed — but it is well-worth looking at.  A sample house from the book can be seen on M.S. Corley’s website.

The print version, which is pictured above, was released in a limited edition of only 100, which sold out about the same time that I received my copy!  You might wonder why I’m blogging about something which is already sold out, but fortunately an e-book version is now available, for those unable to get a print edition.

One reason I really love Gardinel’s Real Estate is that it shows the wonderful possibilities for horror when artists and authors collaborate!  I don’t think I’ve seen a book quite like it before, but I hope to see more like it in the future.

Fans of haunted houses and authors looking for something to inspire their imagination will find Gardinel’s a lovely investment.

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Jane Marcet educates Michael Faraday

This post is in honor of Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of the contributions of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Even when women weren’t officially recognized as scientists or allowed to pursue a formal education or career in science, they still managed to make incredible contributions in a variety of ways.  Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in the story of Jane Marcet (1769-1858), a pioneer in providing science education to women.  Starting in 1805, she wrote a series of science books tailored towards women, the most popular being the 1805 Conversations on Chemistry, which went through 16 editions in Britain alone.  The books became standard textbooks in a number of girls’ schools in the United States.

But women were not the only ones who benefited from Marcet’s writing.  The great Michael Faraday, who demonstrated the connections between electricity, magnetism and light, got his start in science from reading Marcet’s Chemistry!

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The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, by Ramsey Campbell

I haven’t blogged about any of his books recently, but I have said many times before on this blog that Ramsey Campbell is my favorite horror author of all time.  As I noted in a recent post, his novella Needing Ghosts is perhaps the only work of fiction that I’ve ever read that made me doubt my own sanity.

What makes his work so powerful?  Campbell is a master of subtle, creeping horror.  His monsters do not typically jump out at the reader, but rather lurk in the shadows, skittering in one’s peripheral vision.  The cumulative effect is to leave the reader increasingly unsettled, struggling to understand the nature of the threat.  On top of this, Campbell is simply a masterful, beautiful writer.  It was once aptly said of him that in his writing, it is “the words that count.”  (Which he turned into a 1975 story of the same name.)

This past week, I read one of his more recent works the 2013 novella The Last Revelation of Gla’aki.


This book is quite different from Campbell’s work of recent years, as it is explicitly Lovecraftian in nature, featuring monstrous, uncaring elder gods and books filled with forbidden knowledge.  Like many horror authors, however, Campbell got his start by writing Lovecraft pastiches; his first collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants, was published by Arkham House in 1964 and featured a variety of Lovecraft-like stories.  In the titular story, Campbell introduced the ancient monstrous god Gla’aki, who dwells in a lake in the bottom of a remote English lake.

The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, then, would appear to be a bit of an homage to the work that got Campbell started in his writing career in the first place!

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