This anthology of 15 short stories formative in the creation of the horror genre intends to bring to light some lesser known stories with clear occult influences and the works of famous authors with occult interests. Some authors are household names such as Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker. Others such as Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune are primarily known these days for their writings on the occult rather than for their fiction.

Lon Milo Duquette's introduction entertains as much as the stories themselves. Forcibly moved to what he calls the prairie hell of Nebraska as a 9 year old boy, he finds escape from the genuine terrors of childhood reading Edgar Allen Poe. These past century stories are tame if viewed from the perspective of someone groomed on modern, gory, horror films. The written word is best used for slow suspense. This anthology is a much subtler, sometimes more intellectual take on horror than we have become accustomed to. In these pages you get a sense of how fiction, fantasy, folklore and the occult percolated for years in the collective imagination that eventually spawned the modern magick community and the genres of horror and science fiction.  Published between the years of 1838 and 1923, there is a quirky old world flavor. These are the stories that scared the willies out of our forebears.

One of the elements of horror, is the sense that you no longer control your destiny. Worse yet your free will may be subsumed by the will of an evil magician. Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in his 1859 story, "The House and the Brain", reaches into the mysteries of mesmerism and the power of a master occultist to control the thoughts of people far away via a device and a spell. In "Casting the Runes", we encounter the evil Mr. Karswell who uses the runes to will death on his enemies. Mary E. Wilkins Freemen's story, "Luella Miller", is told from the perspective of the townspeople. Luella is considered a woman of deadly charms as each successive caretaker falls ill and dies.

Some horror focuses on the afterlife and immortality. Author Ambrose Bierce asks us to ponder the afterlife in the "Inhabitant of Carcosa". Bram Stoker's "A Dream of Red Hands" tells how a man whose sleep is continually interrupted by a terrible deed he committed, eventually finds a Christian salvation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Ring of Thoth", recounts a multi-century love story, culminating in the kiss of a mummy at night in a museum's Egyptian section.

The influence of drugs is evident in "Ligeia" by Edgar Allen Poe. His protagonist's account of the death of both his wives brings into questions whether the dead is brought back to a fearsome life or is it the madness of grief, sleeplessness and opium delusion. More disturbing yet is "The Testament of Magdalen Blair" by Aleister Crowley. A wife's psychic connection to the dying mind of her husband leaves little doubt that Crowley's drug addled mind was a true chamber of horrors.

Evil curses are another element of horror found in several short stories. H.P. Lovecraft's "The Alchemist" combines the now classic elements of a ramshackle castle, the family curse and the evil alchemist. Robert W. Chambers' "The Messenger", set in Breton, tells of the unintentional unearthing of the skull of a black priest who cursed the family of the narrator's wife. In "No. 252" Rue M. Le Prince by Ralph Adams Cram, a Spanish magician curses the house he had hoped to inherit. The house in "Dickon the Devil" is not scary in and of itself but given that it was the place from which the ghost of Squire Bowles kidnapped young Dickon, not a soul cares to stay there.

One of my favorite stories in the anthology is "White People" by Arthur Machen in which a young girl is taught the secret folklore of her nanny through rhymes and songs and stories. The child recounts tidbits of old folk magic like the creation of a man from clay. She later comes to understand these are not just stories but spells. Journeying by foot through woods and thickets she comes across a fantastic landscape that could be another world. Machen's description of this land of the fairies is reminiscent of magic realism and later fantasy novels.

The final story, "The Sea Lure" by Dion Fortune, is a tale of stigmata, astral projection and love. The ancient idea of the mermaid luring an enchanted man into the sea to his death is given a surprising twist.

It's hard to go wrong with a book of classics. Whether you study the occult and recognize the references or just want a good old fashioned scary story, this is a nostalgic look back at early horror.


~review by Larissa Carlson

Edited and Introduced by Lon Milo Duquette
Weiser Books, 2014
313 pp., $19.95