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Victor LaValle

The Shivers

A well-chosen selection of classic horror stories.

Last week I flew out to Oakland, California to do a reading at a college and, afterward, have dinner with a few faculty members and a handful of graduate students. We went to a Vietnamese place called Pho 84 down on 17th street. I'd been feeling sick before flying out from New York, and after the travel and the reading I lost my voice. Whenever I tried to make conversation I hardly managed a feeble squeak. I sounded like a Muppet, so I stayed quiet and sipped lots of hot tea.

Since the guest of honor couldn't make conversation, the rest of the table fell into pockets of semi-private talk. There were eleven of us at the dinner. Your place at the table determined which group of two or three you spoke with, and this was how things remained until the food arrived. As we ate, the woman next to me—a faculty member and friend of mine—talked about an interesting man she'd worked with at another school. This guy was a poet and made his living, mostly, through teaching, but he had another calling. He was a channel. This meant he read people's energies and picked up information about them. He did this while he wrote and taught at various esteemed universities, generally keeping the two sides of his life separate. As my friend continued to explain, I noticed all other conversations quieted at our table. In quick time all ten of us were listening.

My friend said she'd witnessed this man's ability herself once. She watched him channel not a person but, of all things, a horse. The horse had a mysterious health issue. One so bad it would have to be put down. The channeler said the horse was having a hard time swallowing. Sure enough, the horse's owner scheduled an emergency surgery and a blockage was discovered in the throat. Once that was removed, the horse enjoyed a full recovery. My friend finished her story, then took a bite of her food. All of us at the table were practically leaning into her lap expecting more. But she stopped there.

This broke the table up in an interesting way. The eleven of us had been in a huddle and now we were back into groups—but membership no longer relied on where you'd been seated. Instead what mattered was your reaction to the story of the channeler. The revelation of otherworldly powers. Three people at the table, including my friend, fell into casual conversation about visitations from the dead and a certainty about the existence of a spiritual world. Two of the folks at the table broke into loud, almost aggressive, laughter and hurled questions at my friend. Why hadn't the vet found the blockage? Did the horse speak? Was its voice deep or high? It was antagonistic, even though they were smiling. And the last four simply lowered their heads. They looked like four machines that had powered down. It was as if talking about this subject at all, whether with acceptance or incredulity, was affording it too much respect. They seemed almost ashamed of the rest of the table for entertaining this stuff at all.

Since I couldn't speak I didn't have to offer my opinion. I couldn't change the topic either. I only observed. Three wildly different reactions to the idea of the spiritual, but all of them sincerely, even deeply, felt. Earlier the table had been filled with some divided political conversations, arguments about the value of going to graduate school, but none of these subjects had worked our nerves quite like this. Not all of us. This particular topic—the unknown, the unknowable—sidesteps decorum, short-circuits indifference; most people can't deny some emotional response. Maybe this is why horror stories have always been with us. They bypass our security codes.

This conversation was especially relevant because I'd been reading an excellent new anthology called Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffman to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones. The book collects 29 stories published during the 19th century, surely the heyday of the Western horror tale. The era when the scientific revolution had many people feeling confused about accepted reality, shook as Mobb Deep would say, and the rise of periodicals allowed British folks to carry short fiction with them anywhere.

Some of the most famous practitioners of the form are included in this anthology. Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker, Algernon Blackwood, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and M. R. James. Dickens and Zola, Hawthorne and Balzac, too. In many cases Jones has made the admirable decision to include less famous horror stories by famous authors; instead of Le Fanu's "Green Tea," we get the less well-known, but also effective, "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter." The Balzac selection is one of the finest "spooky house" stories I've ever come across, "La Grande Breteche." Imagine Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" but substantially better in every way.

It wasn't the inclusion of the famed writers that had me most excited, though. It was the chance to read authors who were new to me, and perhaps because of that novelty their stories made a greater impression. "Luella Miller" by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and "For the Blood Is the Life" by Francis Marion Crawford stood out as two wonderfully varied versions of the vampire tale. "The Derelict" suggests a familial affinity between William Hope Hodgson and H. P. Lovecraft; Hodgson as Lovecraft's uncle who spent a life at sea and returned with some wild stories to entertain young Howard.

While the stories are the immediate draw, the work done by Darryl Jones is what makes this book worth owning. His introduction serves to place the Western horror tale in a historical context and to give an overview of his methods, but his Explanatory Notes are the real joy. Jones provides very fine endnotes for each of the stories, explaining phrases from the text and, even more fun, highlighting the older texts these stories are in conversation with—St. Augustine's City of God in Poe, or Fitz-James O'Brien making reference to E. T. A. Hoffmann in his excellent "What Was It?" As a horror geek I got hours of pleasure from all this—so much that it hardly seems fair to think of these notes as supplementing the fiction. Instead they complement it. If the stories are the meal, the Explanatory Notes are the wine. I sure got drunk off them.

The tale within a tale is a common device in these stories. Many have one person recounting odd, troubling, impossible events to a listener, or directly to the reader. Fellowship, a culture of conversation, is essential to many of these tales. Whether in a gentleman's club, a dark bar, or a cozy Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland, horror stories are meant to be told and retold, to be shared. But why, exactly? Maybe the answer lay in that moment my friend was well into the story of the channeler, when the skeptics and the believers all leaned closer to listen. Certain kinds of narratives draw us in no matter how we might react when they're done. Even if you aren't convinced that a man saved a horse's life with a little spiritual magic, well, hell, for a while, as you were listening, you were probably still having good fun.

Victor LaValle's most recent novel is The Devil in Silver (Spiegel & Grau).

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