Fiction Reviews

Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson

(2018) Darryl Jones (ed.), Oxford University Press, £8.99 / US$12.95, pbk, xlii + 510pp, ISBN 978-0-19-968544-8


This is a packed collection of 29 short stories primarily from 19th century horror writers, some familiar, some less so, but all contemporary masters in their fields. The book also comes with a lengthy contextual introduction, substantially boosting the educational value of this anthology. But I suspect most people will be here for the stories, and a sumptuous collection they are. There’s Dickens in here, with his ghostly story of a long dead signalman, and Melville, Zola, Balzac, Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and many others. I’d read some of these stories before ('The Signalman', for instance, and WW Jacob’s 'The Monkey’s Paw'). But they took on new meaning here in the company of their faintly unsettling fellows. At the time I’m sure many of these tales would have been deeply affecting, but time has dulled their edge. We live in a world of slasher horror and CGI monsters, so these once scary tales are reduced, in the main, to quaint period pieces. So we get, for instance, a slight story about a man trapped under a ringing bell, who escapes with his life but barely with his sanity. (William Maginn’s 'The Man With The Bell'). We get a story about a man with nightmares who commits suicide (Hoffman’s 'The Sandman'). And we get a slightly macabre story about a man who, suspecting his wife’s lover hides in her wardrobe, bricks up the wardrobe leaving his wife powerless to save him from slow starvation (Balzac’s 'La Grande Breteche'). And so on. They are unsettling, though, and these writers know how to set a dark tone. These are stories to be read by candlelight, if you dare.

There is a huge similarity of style and tone in these stories – first person accounts of horrible things with lengthy descriptive passages and a regular, almost predictable build up of tension to a final reveal – but they do their job in making the reader feel uneasy, even if we do, often, see it coming, A case in point is Bram Stoker’s The Squaw, about an odious American who kills a cat, thinks he’s invincible and then suffers the consequences, all foreshadowed by an opening aside about a vengeful Native American who, having tracked down and killed the man who killed her child, brags about brutally slaying her. Cue the cat’s revenge… Though we know the formula by now, and we have seen scarier stuff since, these are past masters at work There’s Poe and Kipling in here, writers who knew how to build up tension with half-formed thoughts and hints of dread to come.

Opiates and cocaine, legal at the time these stories were written, clearly influenced some of these stories (indeed, some characters, for instance in Fitz-James O’Brien’s 'What Was It', openly indulge) and, fittingly, many of the stories speak of heightened or altered realities, fevered obsessions and great depressions. Robert Louis Stevenson, famously, was said to have written Dr Jekyll and My Hyde over a three day period during a cocaine bender, and there’s one of his stories here too, 'The Body Snatcher', whose title doesn’t disappoint. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, needed his drugs to function, but his story in this collection, 'The Case of Lady Sannox'. is Holmes-free. It is a story about obsession and mystical eastern daggers, and like most of the stories in this collection, things do not end well.

Dreams loom large and many of the terrors in this volume are terrors of the mind. It starts with E.T.A. Hoffman’s 'The Sandman', and that sets the tone. What that says about Victorian society is anyone’s guess, but I’m not anticipating seeing Disney adaptations of any of these stories anytime soon.

Meanwhile, I’ll be leaving the hallway light on and the bedroom door ajar tonight, just in case.

Mark Bilsborough

See also David's review of Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson.


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