Beneath all the fun, Halloween upholds its spooky essence. On a single October night, we celebrate the darkest side of ourselves: our fundamental desire to transcend our natures, to exceed mortal limits, to claim unwarranted power. We let our children don horrific masks and gather loot from neighbors whom they barely see for the rest of the year. As a community, we gleefully become monsters.
Deeper and more durable than trick-or-treating are the delights of ghost stories and horror tales. So many of the classic works in the genre, Frankenstein and Dracula above all, set into high gear the unbridled Halloween impulse to break through the bonds of mortality and assume mastery over life and death. Under the sway of Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker, we seize for real the power to which Victor Frankenstein and Count Dracula fictitiously pretend. Inert matter (ink on a page) comes to shocking life, and that which is dead (the author, for one thing) is summoned from the grave to haunt us and feed upon the lifeblood of our imaginations.
Year in and year out, the horrors are told and retold, retuned, rediscovered and revamped (or re-vampired). The books recommended here offer a splendid quartet of such variations.
A monster collaboration
Most diehard fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein come to it in its third edition of 1831. Now, English professor Charles Robinson rips away the veil of the novel’s origins and takes us back to the thrilling night in 1816 when two of the greatest living poets—Lord Byron and Percy Shelley—joined in contest with Shelley’s wife Mary and their friend Dr. Polidori to devise the scariest ghost story. Without any doubt, Mary took the laurel with her story of a “Modern Prometheus” and went on to expand the terrifying premise into her famous novel, first published in 1818.
So far, this history is common knowledge. But Professor Robinson digs yet deeper in The Original Frankenstein. Through close examination of the manuscripts, he has been able to determine that the novel came into being as a sustained and extraordinarily intimate collaboration between Mary and Percy, with Percy’s hand literally evident on almost every page. Feminists need not be concerned: Robinson’s research is not another patriarchal theft of a woman’s achievement. Indeed, the professor gives us Mary all on her own in the second half of his volume—two Frankensteins for the price of one—and it is clear that the wife’s raw, “unhusbanded” text is the more forceful one. But in the other text, Robinson allows us to bear witness to a marriage of true minds. The inspiring collaboration between Mary and Percy is the greatest possible antidote to Victor Frankenstein’s solitary and overweening ambition.
Rewriting history—and fiction
Peter Ackroyd seeks no such remission from Dr. Frankenstein’s colossal error. On the contrary, the acclaimed British novelist and biographer swings the monstrous electrical lever of his fiction to its maximum position, committing every conceivable historical outrage in the process. Leave it to this most distinguished living biographer of British poets to fabricate such a delectable conflation of history and imaginative literature. In Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, the infamous narrator becomes the inseparable chum of (who else?) Percy Shelley at Oxford, and Mary comes to love Victor as a trusted friend. The Shelleys inadvertently abet Victor’s unholy investigations into the founding principle of life, and in the end—ha! Did you think I would tell you? However inured you may think you are to the shocks of horror fiction, Ackroyd will violate your defenses with his diabolical intelligence and his uncanny empathy for both real-life and imaginary characters.
The vampire authority
Anyone who has had the good fortune to visit Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan knows what a paradoxically overpopulated and uncluttered paradise he has created for book lovers. The very same qualities inform Penzler’s work as an editor. His latest collection, The Vampire Archives, presents an unprecedented cornucopia of stories, ranging from pure pulp (Stephen King) to high art (D.H. Lawrence). Even so, the experience of reading the anthology feels like a walk in a beautifully landscaped cemetery, perfectly laid out with varying tactile delights and far vistas. The gigantic bulk of this book is counterbalanced by its lucid editorial touches, including a 110-page bibliography of vampire literature.
Sibling love gone awry
Douglas Clegg has been busy building his own 21st-century empire of supernatural fiction (check out his state-of-the-art website). His latest novel, Isis, is a feat of old-fashioned storytelling. When 16-year-old Iris Villiers loses her beloved older brother in a tragic accident, she will do almost anything to get him back. But, as any wise reader knows, summoning the dead back to Earth against their will often has grave consequences. This brief chiller should be read aloud, in a happy company ready to be distressed, while a surplus of Halloween candy sweetens Clegg’s bitter little masterpiece.
Michael Alec Rose is a composer who teaches at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.