If Gustave Doré is the artist who captures the true spirit of Halloween — the Celtic notion of a night when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead blurs — then James Hynes is the contemporary writer who does. Unlike most of Doré’s illustrations, though, Hynes’ books are funny.
In a Boston Review essay, he reveals that he set out “one Halloween season to write a horror novella, just for fun,” and “created my own Frankenstein’s monster of a story — David Lodge’s head stitched onto Stephen King’s body. The result both frightened and amused my friends, so I wrote two more just like it, which together make up the three novellas of Publish and Perish.”
That’s a real trick — writing a story that’s both funny and terrifying. And I can attest that those novellas are. If you haven’t read them, do, especially the one about the cat. Then read Kings of Infinite Space, the novel Hynes accurately classifies as Cubicle Gothic.
In the past year Hynes and I have established an irregular email correspondence (read: I pester him periodically with questions about his next novel — namely, when it will appear). A few weeks ago, I asked if he’d send along some Halloween recommendations.
He said it was a good day to ask: “the temperature in Austin just dropped 20 degrees overnight, with lots of clouds and wind-whipped trees. Very Halloweenish.” And he sent along these ten picks, “with the caveat that if you asked me yesterday or tomorrow, I might have come up with a completely different list.”
1. Any collection of the ghost stories of the English academic M. R. James. All very scary, erudite, and witty. The third novella in my book Publish and Perish is a retelling of his great story “Casting the Runes” — either that, or my version is a shameless rip-off.
2. Julian’s House, by Judith Hawkes. It’s hard to do a novel-length ghost story — hard to sustain creepiness for that long — but this is one of the rare successful examples. She has two subsequent supernatural novels, My Soul to Keep and The Heart of a Witch, which are also wonderfully creepy and beautifully written. She seems to have disappeared off the literary map, which is a crying shame. I love these books.
4. Speaking of Romania, there are the four Subspecies films, recently released on DVD as Subspecies: The Epic Collection, all of which were shot in Romania by the American horror studio Full Moon. Full Moon is the one true heir of Hammer Films, churning out imaginatively lurid horror films on the cheap. They confirm my theory that the best horror films are made on a low budget, when the director can’t rely on snazzy digital effects but must generate scares through atmosphere and editing. They’re also reminiscent of the old Val Lewton horror films (though they have a lot more blood and nudity). They are all imaginatively directed by Ted Nicolaou (a native Texan, I gather, who got his start as a crew member for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and they all feature the wonderful Swedish actor Anders Hove as Radu, the most revoltingly over-the-top vampire in movie history.
5. Another DVD collection: Ultraviolet, a British TV series from the late 90s, written and directed by Joe Ahearne, about a super-secret British agency that fights vampires (though the word “vampire” never appears in the show). Again, low-budget but beautifully written, acted, and made. Features the great Idris Elba (aka Stringer Bell from The Wire) as one of the vampire hunters.
6. Rosemary’s Baby, both the film by Roman Polanski and the book by Ira Levin. The film is one of my favorites of all time, but I was very surprised to discover when I finally read the novel that many of the little satirical touches I thought were the work of Polanski, turn out to have come straight from Levin’s original.
7. The Woman in Black, both the novel by Susan Hill and the British television film. The Hill novel is an Edwardian pastiche ghost story, and lots of fun. The TV version is an old-fashioned ghost story, where the ghost is actually played by an actress in white face, but for all that, it’s one of the scariest films I know of. I watch it every Halloween. The film also has a somewhat grimmer ending than the novel.
8. The Three Imposters, by Arthur Machen. A difficult book to describe, and an impossible one to forget.
9. Salem’s Lot, a deeply terrifying book by … oh, what’s his name, give me minute … oh yeah, Stephen King. And I strongly recommend the miniseries, especially the new one with Rob Lowe, which is consistently better and scarier than the old one with David Soul (though that one had its moments).
10. And last but not least, a shameless plug for a novel by a friend of mine, which you can’t even buy until January: Fangland, by John Marks. It’s John’s third novel (after two superb political thrillers), and his first supernatural one. John was a producer at 60 Minutes, and Fangland is a very scary and very funny novel about bloodsuckers at a certain TV newsmagazine. If you ever wondered what the deal is with Mike Wallace — why, for example, he never seems to age — this is the book for you.