Ghouls, ghosts, witches, werewolves, and things that go bump in the night: They’ve been a part of literature since the start. And every Halloween, a slew of spooky books are released to help commoditize the holiday. Penguin Classics hasn’t shirked in its horrific duties: This month, the venerable imprint is publishing a trio of tomes that touch the rawest nerves of our subconscious, just in time for the long, dark shadows of autumn — namely The Case Against Satan by Roy Russell, Perchance to Dream by Charles Beaumont, and Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti. But are they worth it? Does a bat flit through the woods?
The slimmest of Penguin’s trio of terrors is Roy Russell’s novel, The Case Against Satan. First published in 1962, it was one of thousands of lurid pulp novels — horror, crime, science fiction, and fantasy — published during that era, when literary recognition rarely threatened genre writers. In hindsight, though, Russell’s taut, lean story about a teenager named Susan Garth who apparently has been possessed by some nefarious spirit more than transcends its time. It predated a far more popular book on the same subject — William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, the source of the classic horror film — by eight years, but Russell’s take on possession involves a larger struggle of will between the orthodox Bishop Crimmings, who’s determined to vanquish the devil in Susan’s body, and Father Gregory, a whiskey priest with challengingly modern views on psychoanalysis and rationalism.
The book’s title, The Case Against Satan, may seem clear-cut, but it has subtle double meaning. On one hand, it sums up the battle being waged against what’s believed to be a literal demonic possession; on the other hand, it hints at the fact that the very existence of Satan — and, by extension, God himself — is being challenged. With gripping clarity and incisive wit, Russell weaves a suspenseful plot that’s more of an intellectual thriller than a horror yarn. And at a time when there are still massive ideological battles being waged between science and religion — not to mention a Pope in the Vatican who’s interpreting Catholic doctrine in a way that’s inspiring to some and feather-ruffling to others — The Case Against Satan retains its harrowing, relevant edge.
In addition to penning A Case Against Satan, Russell was an editor at Playboy in the 1950s when the magazine was a publisher and champion of fiction — and it was during that tenure when Russell began printing the short stories of Charles Beaumont. Although he died in 1967 at the age of 38, Beaumont secured his legacy in popular culture by writing many of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone – and many of those were based on the tales contained in Perchance to Dream. This fresh collection of Beaumont’s weird fiction is rife with fantastical tropes and twist endings, from the gothic horror of “The Howling Man” to the socially conscious science fiction of “Beautiful People” (later reworked into the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Number 12 Looks Just Like You”).
Twist endings get a bad rap in our oh-so-sophisticated millennium, but in Perchance to Dream, they’re in the hands of a master. The denouement of “Song for a Lady” might seem flat or anticlimactic to modern readers, but it packs an understated emotional punch that resonates. From the “autumn chill of moving wetness” in “Place of Meeting” to the pentagram-laden mystique of “The New People,” the atmosphere is eerily tangible.
Throughout the book, Beaumont challenges perception, norms, and our smug reliance on appearances, using supernatural and science-fictional elements to drive home his points — sometimes gently, sometimes jarringly. It’s hard not read a hint of tragic autobiography in Perchance to Dream‘s title story, in which a man becomes paranoid that his overactive imagination might exacerbate his heart condition and kill him. Beaumont died of a chronic condition of his own — some have deduced it was early onset Alzheimer’s — and his imagination, as Perchance to Dream amply shows, was more than most writer’s enjoy in the longest of lifetimes.
Just as television played a part in Beaumont’s fame, Thomas Ligotti has seen a huge boost in notoriety lately thanks to a TV show — namely HBO’s dark, brooding True Detective. The show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, came under fire during True Detective‘s first season last year, which some critics claimed plagiarized Ligotti’s work. Before being thrust into that spotlight, the reclusive Ligotti had been a cult figure for decades. His first two collections of short stories, 1985’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and 1991’s Grimscribe, have been collected into a single volume, and it not only showcases Ligotti’s formidable vision, it reveals exactly why he’s been such half-hidden treasure for so long. His stories aren’t for the faint of heart or the rigid of mind; he warps and layers reality and language into surreal, startling shapes.
Drawing from the nightmarish traditions of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, Ligotti infuses tales such as “Flowers of the Abyss” and “The Last Feast of the Harlequin” with strangely contorted architectures, both literal and metaphorical, as he examines the outskirts of madness like an archeologist of the grotesque and absurd. There’s a playfulness and humor to his work, too — perverse though it may be — in the stories “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” and “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror.” But it’s “The Greater Festival of Masks” that winds up being the book’s consummate Halloween story. In it, a man named Noss wanders through an unnamed town whose location in geography and history are kept eerily vague; as he ventures deeper into the village’s increasingly bizarre festival, he dons a mask of his own, only to find that there’s more hiding beneath it than he could ever dream.
Each of these three books comes with beautiful new covers and incisive forewords by some of speculative fiction’s best: Laird Barron, Jeff VanderMeer, and the late Ray Bradbury, who was a close friend of Beaumont and delivers, in typical Bradbury fashion, a remembrance of the author and his work that’s both sentimental and unnerving. Taken together, these are not lightweight Halloween reads. They force us to look at our own world, and ourselves, in radically skewed ways. Ghouls, ghosts, witches, werewolves, and things that go bump in the night are in short supply in The Case Against Satan, Perchance to Dream, and Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe; in their place is something far more familiar, and far more frightening.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.