Horror and ghost stories round-up: Humour at its most chilling, and other hauntings

 

Roger Clarke
Thursday 30 October 2014 16:00
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Things that go bump: 'Three Weird Sisters', depicting the witches from Shakespeare's 'Macbeth', by Henry Fuseli, c1780
Things that go bump: 'Three Weird Sisters', depicting the witches from Shakespeare's 'Macbeth', by Henry Fuseli, c1780

Dead Funny: Horror Stories by Comedians, edited by Robin Ince & Johnny Mains (Salt, £8.00) is a collection of new work by funny people off the telly, including Reece Shearsmith, Katy Brand and Rufus Hound. Some, such as Stewart Lee, have treated the project as an extension of their usual shtick (though in Lee's case with a richly pagan denouement); others, such as Al Murray, have taken the opportunity to do something completely out of their comfort zone, or rather, their zone of public recognition.

Murray's "For Everyone's Good" isn't quite a glass of "white wine for the lady", since he is the lady, a Victorian one with gum problems and a tendency to linger on after death in the asylum. Dead Funny is a brilliantly conceived project by Mains, who when he tried to revive the Pan Book of Horror Stories series some years ago discovered a huge wellspring of affection towards 1970s British horror by a generation now in their early 50s .

It should be no surprise that funny men and women have a macabre side, but more profoundly they have a 12- or 13- year-old self which is largely intact, and which they nurse like a conjoined twin. It's not so much tears of the clown here, more the funny bone is being removed in a cellar without anaesthetic by a man who has watched one too many episodes of Tales of the Unexpected and Hammer House of Horror. Johnny Mains is an admirable figure, the Herbert van Thal of our age.

"'They're not real,' Dad said. 'Just a nuisance, like a lingering smell, or bad weather...' He was wrong." Kim Newman is in old-school ghostly mode for the self-describing An English Ghost Story (Titan, £7.99), in which a troubled family goes to live in Somerset, incidentally the county of Newman's childhood, and finds itself in a house previously owned by a writer of children's ghost stories. (Newman "reproduces" one of her books – a well-tried gothic technique – called "Weezie and the Gloomy Ghost".)

This being Newman, a respected critic, the novel is suffused with a deep genre knowledge of film and books. But he wears his knowledge lightly and writes beautifully, with the notion of the houses as some kind of psychic hive-mind that is initially welcoming and then quite proscriptive and mind-bending. Newman's first novel in a decade, it's a very welcome return.

Katherine Howe is a direct descendent of three accused Salem witches, and has produced a fine compendium of 17th-century dementia with Salem at its core. Packed with transcripts of trials and contemporary documents, The Penguin Book of Witches (Penguin, £9.99) is an invaluable reference book. Unexpected details include a rare New York witch trial (a husband and wife had supposedly killed a man by witchcraft) and the case of a Boston woman so often accused of witchcraft she took her tormentors to court for slander. Some descriptions of possession are vivid: "a dark semblance of hellish torments, and frequently using in these fits diverse words, sometimes crying out, 'Money, money'."

Two compendiums to finish up with. The Phantom Coach: a Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Ghost Stories is edited by Michael Sims (Bloomsbury, £16.99). Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones (Oxford, £14.99), is a gentler affair, with stories from Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens and Amelia Oliphant. Though they share the odd tale ("The Monkey's Paw" – how predictable these anthologies are), Horror Stories is a better, beefier bet and includes two great favourites of mine – Algernon Blackwood's "The Wendigo" and MR James's "Count Magnus".

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