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The Big Book of Ghost Stories by Otto Penzler

The Book of Thin Places

October 30, 2012  |  12:39pm
<i>The Big Book of Ghost Stories</i> by Otto Penzler

In my Alabama family, whenever we gather at holidays or weddings … or even for sadder occasions like funerals … a certain moment always arrives. We clear the supper things, put the dishes away. (In truth, we clear and put the whole day away.) We settle together on a porch or in a parlor one final time to talk, consider, assess. We conduct an autopsy on the last 24 hours.

Always, after some time goes by, a hush falls on the room. Then someone starts a story, nearly always with words like these:

“You know, one time Uncle Moody saw a ghost in his church …”

Oh, it’s delicious. The fireplace crackles and the wind gusts in the night outside, and a room filled with listeners transports from the here and now … to the maybe and what if.

We listen in heart-pounding apprehension to the story of why three bullet holes still scar the pulpit of a country church in Elmore County. We hear again how a tall man with a stovepipe hat walked through the back door—a locked back door—and quietly sat down beside my mother when she was age 12.

We shiver over the oft-told tale of a country doctor in Barbour County, a man respected by his community and well-known to my family. Traveling by horseback from a rural house call one dark and stormy night, Dr. Wallace passed under a low limb … where something strong and small dropped from the branches into the saddle behind him, grabbed his waist … and began to scream.

When my family tells spooky stories, even the ghosts come out to listen. Floorboards creak. A door closes, all by itself. Far away in the house, something jumps and lands, a small thump. Unseen things crack their knuckles in the corners.

We love a good ghost story. We will savor hearing the same ones over and over, embellished and improved each telling. Somehow, knowing what happens in the end can make a ghost story MORE suspenseful. Hair stands on end. A listener beneath a blanket shivers and pulls closer to someone else. Everyone jumps when the dog barks madly … at nothing, empty air.

The Celts told us of thin places, special spots in the world where the separation between real life and supernatural life hardly exists. People and spirits can easily pass through from one realm to the next, like fog passing through a screen.

The Big Book of Ghost Stories places 75 tales of thin places between two covers. If you enjoy, as I have since childhood, a great ghost story well told … this book is required reading.

The editor, Otto Penzler, formerly owner of The Mystery Press in Manhattan for nearly 30 years, has anthologized volumes of mystery and detective stories through the years. Penzler has The Mystery Press imprint now with Grove Atlantic, and he anthologizes big sprawling doorstop-sized collections of noir and suspense and British espionage and spy stories, to the delight of us who love those genres.

Now comes a fat book full of thin places. The Big Book of Ghost Stories bills itself, right on the cover, as “The Most Complete Collection of Uncanny, Spooky, Creepy Tales Ever Published.” The cover shows a frightened woman cringing against a doorway as a figure in white extends its spindly hand. What is the figure? A ghost? A leper? Early David Bowie?

The figures inside the covers scare even more. We have supernatural tales from the giants: Bierce. Twain. Wilde. Cather. Lovecraft. Other writers, like W.W. Jacobs (“The Monkey’s Paw”) and William Fryer Harvey (“August Heat”) persist in literary memory mainly because of their ghost stories.

The classics? You find them here, naturally (supernaturally?). Penzler includes Rudyard Kipling’s “The Phantom Rickshaw;” M.R. James’s great tale “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad;” the wry short-short from Saki, “The Open Window.”

I did miss a few favorites from my days of reading past. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892, badly spooked me once upon a younger time. A Ray Bradbury story ought to be here, maybe “The Emissary” or “The Small Assassin.”

Penzler groups his collection, though it feels more a matter of arrangement than necessity. (Some headings: Classics. A Seance, You Say? Stop – You’re Scaring Me. The Female of the Species.) Chronology ranges from antiquarian work from the quill of Nathaniel Hawthorne to a story from the keyboard of modern master Chet Williamson.

I read many of these ghost stories in the Penzler collection in a burst of fanatical interest in monsters and the supernatural from about age 10 to 14. A great pleasure in re-reading selections for this review came with discovering from a vantage point four decades on how much deeper the ghost stories go now. I read as a boy then. Today, the childish wonder still clicks on, but there’s more, a sense of psychological understanding that enhances nearly every selection.

Story spectrum ranges. Some pieces mystify, as they mean to. Some enchant. Some scare.

One, in particular, disturbs.

Lady Cynthia Asquith wrote “The Follower” in the years when Freud and other psychologists began to tell us exactly, at a level deeper than goosebumps, why things terrify us.

Asquith earned a place as an important figure in ghost story literature as compiler and editor of a collection published in 1926 called The Ghost Book. She handled the professional affairs for many years after WWI for James M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. In this position, Asquith met many famous writers, and she solicited from them the ghost stories in The Ghost Book … the first gathering of ghost stories from true literary writers.

So it is that “The Follower” brings literary flavor to a weirdly modern chiller of a tale.

If Alfred Hitchcock is out there, peering through a thin place back into our world, this story makes him extremely happy.

If you enjoy a good spooky tale, you’ll find happiness peering into these pages too.

Charles McNair is Books Editor at Paste Magazine.

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