The Haunted Looking Glass

nyrb, 2001
nyrb, 2001

The Haunted Looking Glass is a collection of short stories that was published by the New York Review of Books (nyrb) in 2001. The collection purports to be artist/writer Edward Gorey’s (1925 – 2000) favorite horror stories. Well, I see no evidence of these being Gorey’s actual favorites, but I do think these stories were some that he selected to illustrate during his career.  The collection has twelve stories, one of which I had read previously and therefore skipped this time around.  I believe there is an “earlier version” of this collection and the artwork, but I do not have any information on that.

One of the things lacking in this book by nyrb is the lack of Introduction and other informational things. There is a brief paragraph about each of the authors at the end of the book, but that is all.  I feel like someone somewhere would have been willing to write an essay or something for this text.

The stories contained within are:

  • “The Empty House” – Algernon Blackwood  (1906) – 4 stars
  • “August Heat” – William F. Harvey  (1910) – 2 stars
  • “The Signalman” – Charles Dickens  (1866) – 4 stars
  • “A Visitor From Down Under” – L. P. Hartley  – 2 stars
  • “The Thirteenth Tree” – Richard H. Malden – (1942) – 2 stars
  • “The Body-Snatcher” – Robert Louis Stevenson – (1884) – 4 stars
  • “Man-Size in Marble” – Edith Nesbit – (1893) – 4 stars
  • “The Judge’s House” – Bram Stoker – (1891) -4 stars
  • “The Shadow of a Shade” – Tom Hood – 3 stars
  • “The Monkey’s Paw” – W. W. Jacobs  (rated previously) – 4 stars
  • “The Dream Woman” – Wilkie Collins – (1874) – 3 stars
  • “Casting the Runes” – Montague R. James – (1911) –  3 stars

All of these stories are rather famous and well-known examples of horror/occult/supernatural stories.  Almost every one of those authors is probably known to most readers. If I had to pick my favorite stories of this small collection, I would choose the Blackwood and the Dickens.  However, those other stories that I also rated four stars are really good as well.

There are a few things I need to admit to you before I go further in this entry.  The first admission is that I am not a seasoned reader of horror or the occult. This is because that genre tends to disgust me or scare me – effects I do not equate with entertainment.  The second admission is that I rated the stories based a bit on the plot and quite a lot on the “thrills/chills” factor.  The final admission is that I read these in the dead of night. I will also share that at one point my black cat pounced on me and I had a near cardiac emergency. (I did not read any further that night.)

The first story in the book is the Blackwood story and it scared the living tar out of me. I am sure this is because I read it very late with only a dim lamp on in the whole house. Setting and ambiance is very crucial, I think, to reading such genres.  Anyway, I jumped and sweat and yelped my way through this whole story. I will be honest, I think most of the people I know probably wouldn’t even be slightly spooked by this story. Anyway, the whole “this is a vintage Ghost Hunters episode” sure got my pulse racing.

The second story, “August Heat,” was really the only bomb of the book. It was obvious, really contrived, and not interesting.  However, I needed the break from the first story!   I have never been a fan of Dickens. I basically dislike his novels, so I did not come to this third story, “The Signalman,” expecting anything much. It does not start out with clarity and sense. I think some of the setting is tough to get because I am not in England in the mid-1800s.  Once I got a handle on the setting though, I began to feel the creepy factor.  After I read it, I felt the story was a little bit of a letdown.  Then I let it stew and I read sections again – and then I realized that this is a very well done bit of writing.  I looked up some biographical stuff on Dickens and apparently he had a few experiences with trains that may have influenced this story.

The Edith Nesbit story was probably the next scariest story for me.  Maybe because I was able to really visualize this cottage near the church.  There are also elements of slight humor besides all the terrifying things. The narrator is a very doting and compassionate husband.  The fact that his young wife is so put out over a little housework is ridiculous! This story builds up as it goes, it becomes obvious what will happen – but it is still disturbing when it occurs!

The thing is, I do not like really gory, graphic so-called horror. I do not think blood and guts is scary, per se. I am in it for the thrills and chills. I want to be spooked by the little things. I want the ambiance and the setting to pull me in. I want the descriptions to be something I can imagine.  Not all ghost stories or stories of the macabre can accomplish a good scare. Blackwood’s scared me. Dickens’ left me with an eerie feeling. Nesbit’s was humorous and shocking all at once.  Stoker’s was probably the closest to the edge of this genre that I will read.  Stoker’s was the most graphic and violent of these stories, but even so, it was very well written.

Therefore, 3 stars for twelve stories seems correct. The average came out a solid average, let’s say.  I am taking away a few good titles that I will hope to share with fellow readers in the future, I am going to forget a few others. For the two-day read that it was, this was a good collection. Recommend to readers of vintage things and “horror rookies.”

3 stars

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