Wednesday, October 10, 2012

TOIA Ghost Stories

Stop with the lists already! There's the list of Nobel literature winners that I am emotionally invested in someday completing. (And the 2012 winner will be announced tomorrow. Eek! The suspense!) The National Book Award announced its list of finalists for 2012 this morning, and of course I should probably also read all the winners of the Pulitzer in fiction. At least that list only goes back to the 1950s.

And then there's Time Magazine's completely arbitrary--and sometimes bizarre--list of the 100 best novels since 1923. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret? Seriously? Okay, fine, yes, "We must, we must, we must increase our bust" was very influential for me. But of all the 20th-century YA novels in all the world, that's the one they picked? Really? It's like they realized at the last minute that less than a quarter of the authors on their list were women, and they thought that if they tossed us a book about menstruation, we wouldn't notice. So forget the Time list.

But still, that's a lot of reading. What's a girl with three jobs and a steady knitting habit to do?

Chuck it, that's what, and in honor of October, dive into some deliciously terrifying ghost stories.

My bedside table is temporarily haunted.
A local bookstore advertised a pretty good sale last week, and so of course I ran right over to see what I could find. The display table at the front door had a great Halloween display, and The Big Book of Ghost Stories practically leapt into my hands. But I wasn't there to pay full price, so I put it back and wandered around the sale tables. Nothing appealed. In three tables of obscenely cheap books, I couldn't find one single thing I wanted, which has to be a lifetime first for me. Mysterious, right? Almost supernatural, one might say. And all the while, The Big Book kept calling me back, almost as if a mysterious presence wanted me to buy it.

Let's talk for just a moment about how I have never, ever enjoyed even the most highbrow vampire literature--we're talking The Historian, not Twilight--for the very simple reason that I don't believe in vampires. And yet ghosts are not a problem for me. I'm not saying that I believe in ghosts. But, yes, I absolutely believe in ghosts. I mean not really. But, yes, really.

So The Big Book came home with me, Gabriel Garcia Marquez got temporarily relocated to the coffee table to-read pile (catch you in November, Gabe), and, except for that first night when I kept waking up and thinking my robe was a navy-blue ghost hovering at the foot of my bed, I haven't regretted it.

With the crazy that is my life right now, what with copyediting and grading (Did I really need to assign so many essays? No. No, I did not.), short stories are the perfect format for my frazzled mind. And the selection in this book is wide, and, what's even better, obscure. Of the 80 stories, the only one I've already read is "The Monkey's Paw," and the stories range from at least the 19th century through contemporary authors like Joyce Carol Oates. They're arranged not by date but by theme, so stories about love are grouped, as are stories about kids, stories about dreams, and stories that are supposedly funny.

That last is the category I was most looking forward to, but of the three I've read, Mark Twain's "A Ghost's Story" is the only tale that doesn't disappoint. Oscar Wilde's "The Canterville Ghost" starts out funny, but edges into melancholia in the final pages, as if he didn't know how to finish it. And "In at the Death" by Donald Westlake, "the funniest mystery writer who ever lived," according to editor Otto Penzler, is flat-out tragic and demoralizing. I'd someday like the chance to explain to Mr. Penzler that "irony" and "funny" are not automatically the same thing.

But other than that, I've enjoyed every moment of my ghostly detour, and with the number of stories in this anthology, I'm guessing I'll be enjoying them for two or three more Octobers to come. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to gather my furry protectors around me and sample Ellen Glasgow's "The Shadowy Third." Luckily, I live near my mommy, and I can be huddled under her bed covers in 7 minutes flat if need be. So, Mom, leave the deadbolt off just in case, okay? All month. Thanks! 

Update: "The Shadowy Third" was excellent. Even though Glasgow never explains exactly how the ghost became a ghost, the payoff at the end is both surprising and satisfying. 

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