On Reading Ghost Story Collections


Which authors do you think of as the mainstays, surefire appearances, in anthologies of ghost stories, weird tales, fantastic fiction, or “literary horror”? Poe, maybe. Or Lovecraft. M.R. James, Charles Dickens or Robert Lewis Stevenson might come to mind.

Would you have thought of Joyce Carol Oates?

I came to this epiphany today while loitering in the horror anthology section of Borderlands Books. I flipped through Dark Descent (1986), featuring Ms. Oates on the cover, along with Clive Barker, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson. I looked at the Oxford Book of Ghost Stories, The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, American Supernatural Stories (published by Penguin, edited by S.T. Joshi), Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, from the Modern Library series, and Crucified Dreams, a collection of urban fantasy and horror noir edited by Joe Lansdale. I quietly coveted the various volumes of the Ash Tree Press Macabre Annuals: elegant, erudite, and way too expensive. I finally settled on The Dark: New Ghost Stories (2003), edited by Ellen Datlow.

I can’t say Ms. Oates was in every single one of those collections (she’s not in The Dark), but she was certainly in quite a few of the anthologies that I looked through. It surprised me, though I’m not sure why. When I think of female writers of the weird or fantastic, I tend to think of Edith Wharton, Evelyn Nesbit, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, or Isabel Allende. Poppy Z. Brite, when I think of more contemporary writers. It doesn’t surprise me to see Ms. Oates in any single collection, but somehow, it surprises me that she seems so ubiquitous.

As it happens, we finally moved all our books out of storage just two days ago (hurray!), and I can now actually put my hands on all (well, most) of my weird/fantastic fiction anthologies. Turns out I have quite a few of them. And now I wonder: what’s the JCO (Joyce Carol Oates) content in my collection of collections?

I’ve accumulated these over many years of lurking in used bookstores. Consider them incentives for scavenger hunts of your own.

Fantastic Worlds: Myths, Tales, and Stories (1979).

Edited by Eric S. Rabkin. JCO content: none.

I think this was a textbook; Professor Rabkin starts with a fairly lengthy discussion of The Fantastic, its sources, and the psychological need for stories of this sort. The book includes sections on Myth (which starts off with the first three chapters of Genesis); Folktale; Fairy Tale (literary fairy tale: Grimm, Andersen, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien); Fantasy; Horror; Ghost Stories; Heroic Fantasy; Science Fiction; and Modern Fantasy (that section kicks off with Kafka’s “The Judgement”). It ends with an annotated bibliography, and references to theoretical studies.

It has many of the authors you would expect (Poe, Lovecraft, M.R. James, Le Fanu, E.T.A. Hoffman), and a few you might not (Thurber, Barthelme, Vonnegut). A bit out of date, obviously, but probably worth a re-reading.

Great American Ghost Stories (1991).

Edited by Frank McSherry, Charles Waugh, and Martin Greenberg. JCO content: “Night-Side” (representing Massachusetts).

Ghost stories to represent various states of the U.S. Twenty-nine stories, some of the states repeated. Some of the less expected authors: Donald Westlake, Lester del Rey, Madeleine L’Engle, Harlan Ellison. Oh, and Manly Wade Wellman. Actually, you’d probably expect him, but I just like to say his name, and I love his writing, too. I don’t think there was any great theoretical framework behind this selection, but it’s fun.

The Book of Fantasy (1940, first English language printing 1988).

Edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and A. Bioy Casares. Introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin. JCO content: none.

That’s right: a collection of fantastic literature edited by Borges. How could I not have picked that up? If you’ve read any of Borges’ essays and opinions about language and literature, it won’t surprise you to find several English authors, and a lot of Asian, particularly Chinese, writing. There’s also Martin Buber, Olaf Stapledon, Emanuel Swedenborg. I bet he would have included Oates, if she’d been writing in or near 1940 (I think they must have expanded the collection later, because I’m sure some of the stories were written after 1940). Looking over the contents again, and knowing what I do of Borges, it doesn’t surprise me that the proportion of South American authors is relatively low; it does surprise me that they only included a single story by Cortazar: the sad and low-key “House Taken Over”. I would have expected “The Night, Face Up”, which was the very first Cortazar story I ever read (in Spanish, no less) and the one that started my love for fantastic realism. Perhaps it was written too late.

The collection is organized alphabetically by author. The atemporality makes for some interesting juxtapositions. Definitely worth a re-read.

Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday (1997).

Edited by Italo Calvino. JCO content: none.

With the exception of Henry James, Calvino sticks to the nineteenth century, the birth century of modern fantastic literature, in his view. In particular, he sets German Romanticism as the origin of fantastic literature, and breaks the genre up into two groups: “visionary fantastic” and “everyday fantastic”. Included in the first group: Jan Potoki (and if you haven’t read The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, you should), Hoffman, Walter Scott, Balzac, Gogol, Hawthorne, Le Fanu. Included in the second group: Poe, Dickens, Bierce, Stevenson, Wells, Kipling, Turgenev.

Most of these pieces are fairly well known, though worth re-reading. The interest is in large part due to the juxtaposition. And besides — it’s Calvino.

The Haunted Looking Glass: Ghost Stories Chosen by Edward Gorey (1959).

Edited by Edward Gorey. JCO content: none.

Gorey sticks to the Golden Age of ghost stories (late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries). This is not too surprising. We get a Gorey illustration with every story, as well. Algernon Blackwood, W.F. Harvey, M.R. James, Dickens, Stevenson, Edith Nesbit, Wilkie Collins. All classic and well-known stories, but good ones.

The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (1992).

Edited by Chris Baldick. JCO content: “Secret Observations of the Goat-Girl”

I’ve written about this one before, so here I’ll just say: recommended.

American Gothic Tales (1996).

Edited by Joyce Carol Oates. JCO content: Introduction, “The Temple”

And I’ve written about this one before, too. A couple of times. Also recommended.

The Literary Ghost: Great Contemporary Ghost Stories (1991)

Edited by Larry Dark. JCO content: “The Others”

Funny, I don’t have any strong memories of reading this collection. It looks good, too: Robertson Davies, Donald Barthelme, Paul Bowles, A. S. Byatt, Nadine Gordimer, Graham Greene. This one is going on the bedside table, for me to get to — whenever. I’ll let you know.

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (2012)

Edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. JCO content: “Family”

I just started this one, and I’m excited. In addition to the classic authors, the editors have included more authors beyond the usual American/German/British/Irish cohort (as did Borges and his colleagues). Like Borges, they include Ryunosoke Akutagawa, who is best known for Rashomon and In a Grove. Both of these stories would fit well in a weird collection, but neither collection uses them — which is cool. Kafka (whom they name the father of The Weird), Rabindranath Tagore, Saki, Bradbury, Bloch, Gaiman, Michael Chabon. Jean Ray — I’ve been looking for stories by him (in English) everywhere. The first selection was an excerpt from Alfred Kubin’s 1908 novel The Other Side. I think I may have to pick up the rest of it from Project Gutenberg. And unlike every other book I’ve mentioned (except the one I just bought today — just barely), The Weird is less than ten years old.

I bought it as an ebook, because that was more economical. If I like it well enough, I may just have to re-buy it in print, because I’ve really enjoyed the experience of physically leafing through all of the volumes that I’ve been writing about.

This one promises to be good.

So what do we have? Ten collections (counting The Dark), five of them with stories by Joyce Carol Oates. And of the five that don’t, two of them explicitly don’t cover contemporary fiction (Calvino and Gorey), and one of them was compiled before she started writing (Borges).
So five out of seven. That’s not bad. I haven’t done the equivalent count for Shirley Jackson or Angela Carter, but I suspect that Ms. Oates’ stats are comparable to theirs.

UPDATE Aug 10 — I was mistaken. There IS a Joyce Carol Oates story in The Dark: “Subway”. Which makes the final count 6/10, or 6/7 if you don’t count the Borges, Calvino, and Gorey anthologies.

And yet, unlike the other women writers that I’ve mentioned, I’m actually hard-pressed to think of a story (weird or otherwise) that I would think of as “the” Joyce Carol Oates story. Is it because she’s primarily a novelist? But no, she has quite a few short story collections. Is it because my reading is spotty? Well, that’s always possible. Likely, in fact. But there it is.


Out of all her work, my favorite is a collection called The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from The Portuguese (1975). Here’s her foreword:

The tales in this collection are translated from an imaginary work, Azulejos, by an imaginary author, Fernandes do Briao. To the best of my knowledge he has no existence and has never existed, though without his very real guidance I would not have had access to the mystical “Portugal” of the stories — nor would I have been compelled to recognize the authority of a world-view quite antithetical to my own.

It’s true that they are quite unlike anything else by her that I’ve read. I love them.

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