Stephen King

Spooks and Speculation: Stories For All-Hallows Eve

Those of us who aren’t 100% occupied with writing books or blog posts may want something suitable to read by the fireplace between visits by trick-or-treaters. I recently found myself thinking about stories of ghosts and the unexplained, and decided to come up with a list for the blog.

I read most of these stories years ago but had no trouble remembering them. Looking in the anthologies in which they live, I see many other stories that have left no trace in my memory. Maybe that speaks ill of said memory, but I prefer to think the stories I remember are more readworthy than the others.

Two come from a book rescued from a dumpster, its spine ripped off. It’s called 50 Years of Ghost Stories, and was published by Hutchinson of London in 1935 (1959 printing). “The Rosewood Door” by Oliver Onions (1873-1961) is played out in the civilized setting of an English country house. A curious door salvaged from a house being demolished seems like just the thing, but it comes with a disturbing history that meshes tragically with the lighthearted atmosphere of an early 20th century gathering of upper-class Londoners. Oliver Onions is also the author of “The Beckoning Fair One,” a story of quietly growing horror and ruin.

Another story from the battered book is “The Library Window” by Mrs. Oliphant (1828-1897). This is a poignant tale of a girl’s first love, that happens on a visit to an elderly aunt in a quiet Scottish town. The story is full of atmosphere and emotion, with beguiling descriptions of long summer evenings in which almost nothing happens. Except there is a window in the College Library across the street, and a room behind it, and a young man… Or maybe not. This is one of those stories that lingers in memory long after it’s read.

Now to a fat anthology called Black Water, edited by the Canadian man of letters, Alberto Manguel. It’s packed with a wealth of “fantastic literature,” as the subtitle states, but the story I recalled from it most vividly is “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” by Robert S. Hichens (1864-1950). A professor who has no use for affection finds it inflicted upon him in a disturbing way. The nature of the phenomenon is never precisely defined, which makes it all the more intriguing and sinister, and a parrot plays a unique role in the revelation.

No selection of scary stories is complete without at least one mention of Stephen King. He is a master at creating real, memorable characters who are far more than vehicles for a plot. He then visits these people with sorrow and horror. A prime example of this is his novel Pet Sematary, but a story with the same flavour is “Sometimes They Come Back,” from a 1979 collection called Night Shift. A high school English teacher turns to black magic after a devastating loss that echoes a similar loss in his childhood. King’s experience as a teacher comes through strongly in this story. In the same collection is another well-crafted tale called “Strawberry Spring.” It vividly conveys the atmosphere of a New England college town where a serial killer is at work, complete with a slap-in-the-face surprise ending.

There are many collections of supposedly true ghost stories around, many with a geographical focus. Such is a slim volume called Ghost Stories of Saskatchewan by Jo-Anne Christensen. Having lived in that Canadian province for twelve years, I bought the book out of nostalgia. One story is incredibly creepy. “Mystery at the Moose Head” tells of multiple strange incidents in the early 1990s at the Moose Head Inn, a popular dine-and-dance spot on Kenosee Lake. The number and frequency, and the fact that many people experienced these things (noises, electrical malfunctions, locks and doors acting up) attracted attention from newspapers and television stations. The owner and his girlfriend lived in an apartment upstairs. After an especially disturbing manifestation, the girlfriend moved out. The owner stayed on, however…

Finally, I must recommend my all-time favourite fear-inducing story: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). I wrote a blog post about this tale a while ago, with a plot summary and my thoughts on why it works so well.

A final thought — the word “haunted” is more effective in inducing fear than the word “ghost,” maybe because “ghost” sounds concrete, while “haunted” provokes the question, “By what?”



Mr. King and I

A few weeks ago, as I began reading 11/22/63 concurrently with Dr. Sleep, I realized that I’ve had a decades-long relationship with Stephen King.

I bought a copy of Carrie in a used book store in Vancouver B.C. in (I think) 1975 and found it horribly fascinating, not so much because of Carrie’s paranormal power or the bloodbath at the end, but the stark picture of high school culture. Salem’s Lot is a true horror, but told with more subtlety than is common in that genre. The Shining is the same, only better, combining human drama with supernatural evil in a totally compelling way. Then there’s The Stand, the ultimate “what if” scenario. I was on board for just about all his books for years, but I never did get involved with the “Dark Tower” saga and eventually I began to lose touch with Mr. King. While I love big, fat books, I got tired of cataclysmic conclusions (as in Needful Things and Insomnia, for example). The Tommyknockers and It are saved (barely) by memorable characters. It also features one of King’s trademarks — a vivid portrayal of childhood and the past. I’ve read The Dead Zone, Firestarter and Christine more than once, and Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game are among my favourites. Oh, and Pet Sematary — now there’s a perfect blend of human tragedy and supernatural evil, just as good as or better than The Shining. Over the years, I’ve spent many enjoyable hours reading (and re-reading) King’s books. As immersive entertainment, the best of them are hard to equal.

Some people don’t seem to realize that Stephen King is not simply a writer of horror fiction. It’s true that his early books were squarely in that genre, and just about all of his writing includes some element of the paranormal, but many of his books could also be called psychological fiction. Their common element is not horror (meaning evil supernatural entities or powers) but people dealing with difficult, even impossible situations, some caused by evil supernatural entities, but others resulting from bad luck and human frailty. (Think of Cujo or Gerald’s Game). Most of them seem to originate with the question “What if…?” Maybe “speculative fiction” is a better label. Readers who are put off by horror may avoid King altogether, missing out on some great reads.

I was sparked into writing my first book (The Friendship of Mortals) after reading King’s On Writing. This slender book made writing seem do-able, something not beyond the capabilities of a person with a full time job. Before reading it, I had always supposed that the only way to be a writer was to write for a living, preferably after completing a degree in Creative Writing and hanging out with bohemians in some writers’ utopia. I already had an idea for a novel — to explore the personality and motivation of H.P. Lovecraft’s character Herbert West, with a librarian at Miskatonic University as narrator. King’s book got me started, and brought me to this point, writing a blog post in tribute to this versatile and wildly successful author.