I've loved to be spooked by stories since I was 5, when I read Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House in the Big Woods." This is not generally considered a horror novel, but the panther following Grandpa home through the trees freaked me as much as fiction ever has. Within a few years, I was mainlining Stephen King.
So I'm giddy about the reissue of these classic chillers, two of which take their black, fetid cue from the overheated master, H.P. Lovecraft. Along with Edgar Allan Poe and Philip K. Dick, Lovecraft is one of the best bad writers this country has produced, and his progeny writhe in the cracks that spread in our reality to reveal ancient, unspeakable horrors, often prodigal with eye, tentacle and ooze. Horror fiction slides easily into camp, but these three authors usually strike a queasy-making balance this side of the ridiculous, providing the sort of disquieting thrill that used to keep me up past my bedtime with all the lights ablaze.
William Sloane's two novels, collected under the title "The Rim of Morning" (NYRB, $18.95), are less scary than unsettling, less horror than science fiction in the vein of "Frankenstein." Each concerns the unintended consequences of the hubristic human quest for knowledge, which sounds like an earnest high-school student's thesis statement, but Sloane's execution is nothing but net. "To Walk the Night" gives the succubus trope an alien spin; "The Edge of Morning" subjects necromancy to (a rather vague notion of) theoretical physics. Sloane taught writing at Bread Loaf for a quarter-century; his lean, wry prose is well-suited to his canny observations of human beings and other nightmares.
Like Sloane, Thomas Ligotti borrows from Lovecraft the detached tone of the academic observer, the man of reason who understands too late that he is up against forces his philosophy never dreamt of. These two story collections, long out of print, are canonical among horror cultists. Ligotti is expert at evoking a sense of otherworldly dread — the pieces in "Grimscribe" (Penguin Classics, $17) in particular, especially the vivid "Last Feast of Harlequin," are eerily captivating. But Ligotti's prose sometimes becomes as clotted as Lovecraft's in an almost comical attempt to wring from his words a darker significance than they can bear. Overwriting doesn't get much purpler than these lines from "Songs of a Dead Dreamer": "Each utterance was an opera of iniquity, a chorus of savage anathemas, a psalm hissing of fetid lust." Or try this:
I begged them, for heaven's sake, to let me go out into the night.
Night, night, night, night. Night, night, night.
I seem to be getting a kind of nocturnal vibe from these lines, maybe? But no matter — it takes more than a little bad writing to scare me.
Ray Russell wasn't a bad writer at all. He owes little to Lovecraft, and much to the hard-boiled pulp tradition. The story might seem familiar: A smart priest with modern ideas confronts the reality of evil (or perhaps of mental illness) in the vessel of a girl, "pretty, pigtailed, in her teens," given to obscenity and in possession of impossible knowledge. Yes, the plot of "The Case Against Satan" (Penguin Classics, $15) resembles that of William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist," but it preceded the more famous novel by almost a decade. I haven't read "The Exorcist" in 30 years, but revisiting its bombastic opening pages on Amazon left me the more impressed with Russell's cool, understated style. The human interactions are the real draw. Russell's cinematic dialogue vivifies the somewhat stock characters (the scandalized bluenose, the hard-nosed cop). There's nothing lurid or sensationalist here, no adjectival floridity, no projectile vomiting — just some good scares and a hell of a tale told with economy and wit.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections "Alien vs. Predator" and "The Second Sex."