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Review: In Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories, Spooky Dwellings Get a Fresh Coat of Paint

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I suppose it could be argued that there isn’t a “new” way to write a haunted house story—how many unique things can you really do with a haunted house, after all?—but after reading Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, if such an argument were ever to be presented, I’d be on the side of the defense.

This collection isn’t short on classics—Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” and Stoker’s “The Judge’s House”—nor is it short on some standardly-hallmarked, but still fun, pieces: Henry Slesar’s “The Right Kind of House” if you love a nail-biting mystery;  Robert Aickman’s “The School Friend” if you love a little odd romance; “The Haunting of Shawley Rectory” if you like a ghost hunt; Michael Raeves’ “The Tearing of Graymare,” if you like a good scare.

But it’s the several stories with unique takes that make this collection a must-have.

Robert Bloch’s “Lizzie Borden Took an Axe,” while I found had one unbelievable moment as a character leaps to rather sudden conclusion (I would have founded this with at least one mention or thought earlier on in the story so it didn’t feel like it came out of nowhere), is a riveting page-turner while simultaneously creating a sense of leaden, pondering dread in the middle of a summer day through the use of a decay motif. And the subtly-foreshadowed ending is a total shocker. I won’t provide any other spoilers here except to note that the story is not about Lizzie Borden, but if you really want to make this one hell of a ride, you’d do well to read Angela Carter’s “The Fall River Axe Murders” first (Carter’s short was first published in 1981 and again in 1985; Bloch’s was first published in 1946. Who knows if Carter read Bloch’s story, but I find the connection between the two makes me think Carter may have been directly inspired).

Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Doll” is what you’d expect of her unique psychological horror, but when applied to the haunted house story, it’s definitely not what you’d expect (think about the story’s title a little bit and you might figure out why)—and deals a wallop of a commentary on the long reach of our childhood’s shadows. Similar in theme is William F. Nolan’s “Dark Winner,” which isn’t surprising, since he’s the genius behind Logan’s Run. What is surprising about “Dark Winner” is the storytelling itself. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it’s tough to pull of this particular style and not bore the crap out of your readers. Nolan not only nails it, he gets the job done quick and dirty. I couldn’t put the story down. Charles L. Grant’s “The Children, They Laugh So Sweetly” also looks at the haunted house in connection with children, but through the eyes of—if I even mention it, I’ll blow the story’s surprise ending.

Years ago, I’d read Jack L. Chalker’s “No Hiding Place” and had loved it—and given its completely odd take on the Haunted House, I’m not surprised it was included in this collection (it appeared in his 1988 collection Dance Band on the Titanic, which had, that year, been a birthday gift from my Dad): this one will trash everything you know about haunted house lore.

The most fun piece, though, is Margaret St. Claire’s “The House in Bel Aire.” This is one take on a haunted house story that was so fresh I had to read it twice. For all the haunted house tales I’ve read over the years, I can’t think of any even remotely reminiscent of this one. I have never read anything like this and I’m pretty sure you haven’t either.

Anthologies and collections can be uneven, and this one is no exception. Just as there are solid and creative stories in this collection, there are weaker ones, too.

I felt that Edward Bryant’s “Teeth Marks,” which started off in a gripping, chilling voice, collapsed because it was told from alternating POVs; it was like walking on an uneven floor. Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Cat Jumps,” despite its well-developed atmosphere, was peopled with cardboard characters, lacked suspense, and had a what-the-hell-does-this-have-to-do-with-the-last-five-pages-I-just-struggled-through? ending.

I didn’t mention all the stories in here; there are a few more, and Greenberg’s introduction alone, in which he examines why tainted home stories are scary, makes the purchase of this book a worthwhile endeavor. So if spooky dwellings are your thing, you should own this collection.

It definitely puts a fresh coat of paint on the old haunted house.

You can purchase Haunted Houses: The Greatest Stories by Martin Harry Greenberg at Amazon here:

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