- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

Whether the weather is unseasonably warm or edging toward winter’s chill, some things are predictable and constant in the just-past-twilight zone that Ray Bradbury called the October country. Ghosts, goblins and witches prowling our neighborhoods demanding treats on Hallowe’en eve, our imaginations surrendered to an annual outpouring of deliciously unsettling stories. Readers unable to resist such temptations should check out some of this season’s fare.

Bowing to the tradition confirmed by the classic Modern Library anthology “Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural” (one of the sacred texts of my adolescent reading years), I draw your attention first to a non-ghostly, yet eminently scary terror tale.

The Painted Bride (Subterranean Press, $40, 181 pages) is veteran thriller-writer Stephen Gallagher’s tense melodrama spun from the mysterious disappearance of auto dealer Frank Tanner’s wife Carol, the stalled police investigation into Frank’s possible guilt — and the complications ensuing from the obsessive actions of Carol’s burnt-out, former drug-taking younger sister Molly, who knows Frank did away with his wife, and devotes her dwindling energies to protecting the children now in his care and bringing him to justice.

Mr. Gallagher expertly shifts among several characters’ frazzled viewpoints, detailing the progress of Molly’s “investigation” and Frank’s suspicious evasive actions in crisp, quick scenes, making chilling use of a child’s drawing of a woman in a red dress (“the painted bride”), leading toward a series of violent climaxes at a seaside ferry terminal, where crucial secrets are unearthed — and the paradoxical image of the nurturing parent as murdering monster is finally engaged and explained.

There’s even a hint of the supernatural in an endangered child’s anguished outcry: “He killed my mother and now he won’t die.” It’s a neat capstone to an accomplished and suitably unpleasant shocker.

More traditional genre work is collected in The Secretary of Dreams: Volume One (Cemetery Dance, $75, 290 pages), which presents six short stories that appeared previously in horror master Stephen King’s “Skeleton Crew” and “Nightmares and Dreamscapes.”

The arresting black-and-white illustrations of Maine artist Glenn Chadbourne here accompany tales of reanimated zombies plaguing a remote Maine island (“Home Delivery”), a gloomy old house with a dark history (“Rainy Season”), an oddly disturbing painting, then a wrecked vehicle that come to threatening life (in “The Road Virus Heads North” and “Uncle Otto’s Truck,” respectively). There’s also a prequel of sorts (“Jerusalem’s Lot”) to Mr. King’s popular horror novel “Salem’s Lot.”

The best story is “The Reach,” in which aged Stella Flanders, who has never in her long life crossed “the water between the island and the mainland” (“the reach”), finally makes the journey. It is the one we expect it to be — as his fine story’s uncharacteristically delicate ending (beautifully illustrated by Mr. Chadbourne) memorably reveals.

Other novels that fit squarely into the genre: Norman Partridge’s high-octane melodrama Dark Harvest (Cemetery Dance, $40, 190 pages), set in an unnamed Midwestern town where trouble-seeking teenaged males unwisely spoil for a fight with the scarecrow (“October Boy”) said to wreak annual havoc in local farms and fields; Barbara Hambly’s amusingly lurid Renfield: Slave of Dracula (Berkley, $23.95, 320 pages), narrated by the eponymous asylum inmate, whose obedient servitude to the evil Count is portrayed as a vertiginous and truly frightening descent into madness; and Sarah Langan’s splendid debut novel The Keeper (Harper Torch, $6.99, 382 pages).

Echoes of Stephen King resound throughout Ms. Langan’s rich depiction of the stunted life of a northern mill town (Bedford) rendered moribund by the closing of its paper mill, and “haunted” by the silent figure of Susan Marley, a waif-like beauty burdened by a tragic personal and family history only partially understood by the novel’s protagonist, Susan’s younger sister Liz.

Ms. Langan, writing in a scrupulously lucid style that blends economical declarative sentences with locally inflected figurative language (e.g., being in the woods at night “felt like being inside an animal’s mouth”), patiently connects the Marley family’s story with those of their neighbors (Liz’s stalwart high school boyfriend Bobby Fullbright, depressive drunken teacher Paul Martin, embattled Sheriff Danny Willow and his unstable wife April, among others), building toward a climactic plague of mutilations, suicides and murders, as Susan — a ticking time bomb both in life and in what seems to be death-in-life — delivers the hammer blow of judgment to all who await it.

Only an over-reliance on nauseating graveyard detail blunts the power of Ms. Langan’s complex conception, in what readers may hope is only the first fruit of a most promising career.

The other “keeper” among this season’s offerings is American Morons (Earthling Publications, $24, 192 pages), a second collection of seven ingenious ghost stories from Glen Hirshberg (author of the critically praised earlier collection “The Two Sams”).

Mr. Hirshberg specializes in revealing how the past impinges horrifically upon the present, smashingly in the title story about American tourists stranded on an Italian country road until a chance “rescue” that isn’t what it initially seems; and a brisk account of a retiring teacher’s day-trip on the shuttle service (“Transitway”) that appears to be conveying him to a reunion with his long lost family.

Even better are the story of secrets discovered by two young boys who mischievously explore the crowded house owned by their late beloved grandfather (“The Muldoon”); and a superb period piece (“Devil’s Smile”), in which a lighthouse inspector encounters a lonely woman whose explanatory tale of death at sea, survival and grief opens an unwanted window on stories perhaps better left untold.

There are also several fine ghost stories in Volume 19 of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin’s Griffin, $19.95, 608 pages), edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant: notably, Barbara Roden’s atmospheric tale (“Northwest Passage”) of a woman living alone in remote British Columbia, two young hikers she meets and the “wilderness life” that rises up to meet them; and Joe Hill’s brilliant “My Father’s Masks,” about a willful, game-playing married pair, their rapidly maturing adolescent son and the horrific realization of the arch fantasies to which the boy’s parents have thoughtlessly exposed him.

This is a classic: perfectly constructed, superbly imagined, rich in nightmarish symbolism.

Thus the beat goes on: that of a terrified heart racing many miles a minute. For a number of us (and we are legion), such perverse pleasures are among the choicest that the dangerous act of reading offers.

Bruce Allen lives in coastal small-town New England, where we know bad things walk about in the night. He writes for the Boston Globe, Raleigh News & Observer and Sewanee Review, among other publications.

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