One of the best things about horror is its diversity. This was—beyond the superficial trappings like bats and cobwebs and creaky houses that stirred a loving tingle in my breast—what drew me to the genre as a young person in the first place. The vastness of it made me dizzy with glee.
The Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine, held by many today, it seems, at a nostalgic distance with just the tiniest amount of condescension, really opened up my mind about this particular facet of horror. Each book was like a Monster-of-the-Week episode from “Insert Your Cherished TV Show Here.” There were walking scarecrows, vampires, dog ghosts (ghost dogs?), green slime, basement creatures that were the manifestation of a boy’s head trauma…
Holy cow! I thought. Can they ever run out of ideas?
Well of course, they can. But that enthusiasm, that constant sense of discovery, has stayed with me since that time. I’m always eager to seek out new twists and turns on the genre’s themes and conventions, sniffing each dusty page with all the reverence and passion of a wine connoisseur. I need a little taste of whatever I can find.
This is why horror anthologies, especially, have meant so much to me. They’re my buffets, each table of contents a menu of dark delicacies cooked up by master chefs who add their own spice to old dishes. That’s what brought me—and brings you too, you rascals—here, to today’s smorgasbord.
The tome in question is Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown: A Treasury of Bizarre Tales Old and New, rockin’ awesome Edward Gorey cover art and edited by none other than Mr. Marvin Kaye. I first encountered Kaye through a coverless edition of his volume Ghosts that I obtained, I’m guessing, through one of my grandfathers, two people who were both always happy to feed my morbid interests.
As I became more acquainted with short horror fiction, it became apparent that Kaye was a heavyweight in the anthology department, compiling books that seemed to specialize in gathering the more obscure and dusty stories that skittered about on neglected shelves from established genre writers, one-off scribes, and more “mainstream” ink-slingers alike. Along with a with its older companion piece, Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural, Kaye edited similar volumes of shuddery yarns and theatrical pieces including Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies, 13 Plays of Ghosts and the Supernatural, and The Ultimate Halloween. You can peruse his website here.
Perhaps more than anything else, these books schooled me on the old masters, molding my genre tutelage and exposing me to prose and poetry that ranged from affecting delicacy to surprising gruesomeness. In trying to determine which stories I would cover for this post, I tried basing my decision on different factors (intriguing titles, little-known authors, etc.) and read a few selections in preparation. One story covered today I intended to write about from the start; the other was a very happy accident that occurred during my casual reading. So, here we are, finally.
Up first: “In Letters of Fire” by Gaston Leroux. This one we can certainly file in the “Intriguing Titles” folder. Just what do these letters proclaim? Who wrote them? Why are they on fire? Mystery abounds!
Leroux is most famous for writing The Phantom of the Opera, a novel published in 1910 and one that still serves as the go-to fountain of inspiration for all theatrical-based terrors. Leroux was also fairly well known for his mysteries of the locked-room and murderous sort like The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) and The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1908). Another interest-piquing title (he was good at those), The Man with the Black Feather (1903), was included in one of Bill’s Best Books of the Year countdowns on this very site. Kaye’s introduction to the story, alluding to Leroux’s use of such Gothic mainstays as brooding castles and devilish pacts, only made me salivate more in anticipation.
A group of friends are hunting for wild boar in a European forest when a storm breaks out. Taking shelter in a cave, the group is warned by a Faithful Ethnic Companion that the nearby manor and its master are reputed to be “haunted by the devil.” And who should show up right then and there at the mouth of the cave than the gentleman himself!
He’s a kind enough bloke though, a little world weary, but he’s more than gracious enough to provide the men with a roof to sleep under. They oblige, but our nameless narrator makes the mistake of haughtily requesting to spend the night in the manor’s famously haunted room. This perturbs the elderly host just a bit, for it was in that room that his great misery and loss were born. As a bitter, suicidal young man, he stared into the mirror of a wardrobe in an attempt to conjure a vision of Satan. You know, just for kicks. And it works:
Yes, then, in the mirror, side by side with my form, something superhuman—a pale object—a mist, a terrible little cloud which was soon transformed into eyes—eyes of fearful loveliness. Another form was standing resplendent beside my haggard face; a mouth—a mouth which said to me, “Open!” At this I recoiled. But the mouth was still saying to me, "Open, open, if you dare!”
Then, branded into the wooden wardrobe the man sees his fortune written in letters of fire: “Thou shalt win!”*
And win he does. Eternally does our host win; every gamble, every roll of the dice brings him limitless riches. Things have been fairly ordinary up to this point, but then Leroux incorporates one of my favorite narrative devices: the acid test. Naturally the hunters dispute the old man’s claims, so they all sit down to a final game of cards to see if their host truly has His Infernal Majesty’s Luck.
To go much further would spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that Leroux’s story managed to do all the right things in that it had the hoary (he said with love) decorations of Gothic horror while crafting a decidedly unique spin on the favorite “devil’s-pact-ain’t-all-it’s-cracked-up-to-be” theme that even the man beating the dead horse would have to agree has been used quite a lot. The story’s closing moments are extremely cunning, moreso because one of the twists is a not-uncommon one, but the momentum and peculiarity of Leroux’s writing makes you forget some important details that might have been made more obvious by a less skilled writer.
I found myself giving mental vocalizations of “Ha!” every time Leroux led me to believe one thing before showing me something quite different. My pre-determined image of the cloven guy with the horns was usurped by Leroux’s sensual lady of the mist; his introduction of such disparate elements of foreboding (the whispers of the haunted room, the host’s rage at his guests playing poker) surprisingly coalescing into a satisfying and organic backstory. Not to mention the whole affair ends on a char-black note that occurs almost as an afterthought. Call me sick, but it made me laugh. Grimly, but laugh all the same.
This particular translation of the story stirs up some unintentional comedy as well, specifically when the old host discusses the malady that has led his dog to become mute. Here the word “dumb” is used to describe the dog’s lack of voice, as was fairly common during the time Leroux penned his tale. But this leads to an amusing conversation wherein the old man goes on to say (I’m paraphrasing) how the dog “has been dumb her whole life” and that “her mother was dumb, as was her mother before her.” This would normally just make the reader crack a smile of “Oh, the past” except Leroux goes on for a damn good while so that it almost gets to the point of absurdity. Not only that, but I think the translator must’ve been screwing around because, literal translation or not, I think we can safely assume that Leroux meant to refer to the dog as “bitch” as opposed to “slut.” Unless there’s something I’m missing about how the French feel about their canines.
In short, this Leroux fellow has my attention. “In Letters of Fire,” along with information I’ve gleaned from his other narratives, shows that despite an almost pulpy aesthetic Leroux was a deft craftsman, taking familiar concepts and smashing them together to give you something utterly different and at times just plain bonkers in the most delightful of ways. And being of the vintage that his writing is, I can assure you that that is a definite accomplishment, brother.
Speaking of definite accomplishments, look, it’s our next story: “The Lost Room” by Fitz-James O’ Brien. The author’s name may be familiar if you’re an unapologetic anthology-hoarder, no doubt due to his famous tale “What Was It?” cropping up in many and sundry compilation. A contemporary of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” “What Was It?” is a weird little tale playing on the “invisible thing from yonder” motif to head-scratching effect. Bierce’s wit and cracker barrel narration is traded in for a general atmosphere of oddness and uncertainty in O’Brien’s story, the titular unseen bogey the possible product of too much opium-smoking on the part of the protagonists. So as you can see, O’Brien’s approach can be a little off the beaten track.
And thank St. Beelzebub for that. “The Lost Room” similarly confounds Mr. Kaye, who calls the story “difficult to describe and, once read, impossible to forget.” I’ll do my best to defy the first point, but regarding the second: hell yes.
Our hero, again nameless, sits in reverie inside his bedroom, the summer heat taking much of the joy from his evening smoke. He looks upon his treasured items, recalling the rich histories as represented by everything from his family crest to an antique dagger that goes all the way back to a royal Irish ancestor. Feeling the light breeze from the garden, the man decides to seek cool sanctuary amongst the shrubbery, a passage of evocative prose that O’Brien perfumes with a sinister air:
It was very dark. The tall-growing flowers that bordered the path were so wrapped in gloom as to present the aspect of solid pyramidal masses, all the details of leaves and blossoms being buried in an embracing darkness, while the trees had lost all form, and seemed like masses of overhanging cloud. It was a place and time to excite the imagination; for in the impenetrable cavities of endless gloom there was room for the most riotous fancies to play at will. I walked and walked, and the echoes of my footsteps on the ungravelled and mossy path suggested a double feeling. I felt alone and yet in company at the same time.
Just as the creeping vine of dread begins to encircle the man’s spine, he practically runs into another idler in the garden. The stranger seems peculiarly short, and when he asks for a light for his own cigar, our hero catches sight of the stranger’s unnatural face in the glow of his match. The little man asks much about the other boarders of the large house the narrator lives in, but he also has much to tell about the man’s seldom-seen neighbors:
“O, but you will care. You must care. You shall care. I’ll tell you what they are. They are enchanters. They are ghouls. They are cannibals. Did you never remark their eyes, and how they gloated on you when you passed? Did you never remark the food that they served up at your table? Did you never in the dead of night here muffled and unearthly footsteps gliding in the corridors, and stealthy hands turning the knob of your door?”
So, this is news. The narrator promptly calls the stranger a fool and a fiend, but when he reaches out to the little man he notes how his skin feels like glass right before the stranger promptly shrieks in rage and flies away in a burst of light. Fairly ruffled by these recent developments, the man returns to the house to find… not his room. The door from which he came opens upon the space that was previously his bedroom, but all the furnishings have been replaced and it is now filled with beautiful, strong, robed women and men who wear half-masks. A lavish banquet has been laid out and the man’s grand piano is now an imposing organ. The man’s insistence on his ownership of the room is met with eerie revelry:
“Yes,” I continued, as soon as the noisy mirth had subsided, “yes, I say, leave my room instantly! I will have none of your unearthly orgies here!”
“His room!” shrieked the woman on my right.
“His room!” echoed she on my left.
“His room! He calls it his room!” shouted the whole party, as they rolled once more into jocular convulsions.
It’s a truly discomfiting scene, as both we and the narrator try to get a grip of what on earthly hell is going on. Are these people indeed cannibalistic sorcerers? Ghosts from the past? Satan worshippers? We never find out. When our hero is pressed to join the group’s mysterious ranks, his possession of the room is determined by a game of dice, drawing a nice parallel to the never-bet-the-Devil-your-head antics of “In Letters of Fire.” In the end, a winner is claimed and we are left to ponder the image of sharp-toothed butler giggling at the hero’s misfortune.
Wooph. There you have it. Sometimes compilers of anthologies have a habit of overselling the stories when they provide introductions, but Kaye’s modest declaration is more than apt. Though “The Lost Room” appears in the section of the book titled “Ghosts and Miscellaneous Nightmares,”—and Kaye states it as the latter—O’Brien’s story is a weird tale through and through in the most pure sense. If Leroux performed a sleight-of-hand with his upturning of Gothic conventions, O’Brien knocks them (and the reader) on their ass.
The bizarre logic at work perfectly composes an atmosphere of dreadful discovery that comes from the most deliciously terrifying kind of nightmare. Who can say how long the man lived in that house. Is he even awake, or alive? Why do these sinister figures want to possess his room, and to what ends? Thankfully no answers are ever given for O’Brien knows that they would be nowhere near as interesting as the questions.
Reading “The Lost Room” reminded me of the story I had heard about Robert Louis Stevenson’s initial composition of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stirred from slumber by a vivid dream, he dashed to his writing desk and started writing every last detail he could remember before the story could leave him in that wispy way that dreams so often do. I can’t help but imagine that the same might have occurred to O’Brien, for his tale at times seem to be a bit autobiographical (perhaps the anecdote about the Irish ancestor was a memory of a family legend), the other strange details of the story bubbling up and running together with his thoughts until they all fused together to form this intoxicatingly powerful tale.
I doubt my words are enough to convey the truly alluring nature of either of these stories, so I feel it best to end with an entreaty to seek them out and read them yourselves. Don’t let their aged quality turn you off either. Or do. You’ll only be more surprised that way anyway.
So look back, and drink deep of that horrific vintage.
*Just try to keep yourself from hearing the ghost’s voice from The Amityville Horror (1978) shout those fiery words.
Jose Cruz is a New York-born freelance writer and blogger, but both those descriptors are much too prestigious for him so he won’t use them. His blog The Grim Reader hums with the current of intermittent activity, and he has also written film and literature critiques for Classic-Horror.com, The Terror Trap, and Paracinema Magazine. He composes prose fiction and theatrical plays in his spare time, but nothing has happened with those, so who cares? If you find him, give him a hug. He needs friends.