In these difficult and challenging times, during which we all need to fortify ourselves intellectually and morally, I have done a great deal of reading. Yes, I have plunged deep into the world of…scary stories.
It’s true. M.R. James’s classic Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Oxford University Press’s lovely edition of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, Otto’s Penzler’s anthology The Big Book of Ghost Stories, and, above all, the marvelous two-volume set from the Library of America, American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to Now. I have read of eldritch creatures whose only power is terror (M.R. James, “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’”); hearty, cheerful vampires who suck the blood of village folk (E.F. Benson, “Mrs. Amworth”); a hideous and apparently sentient home decoration (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”); a creature comprised of a city’s soot and grime that may wish to be worshiped as a god (Fritz Leiber, “Smoke Ghost”). Some of these tales are disgusting—Joyce Carol Oates’s “Family” is a deeply perverse narrative I wish I hadn’t read—while others are witty and even light-hearted. Some contain moral lessons; most do not.
Again and again as the coronavirus has spread, and commentary on it and predictions about its consequences have spread even faster, people I know have read every op-ed available and have tracked daily reports of recorded cases of COVID-19 and deaths. The more literary-minded have joined reading groups devoted to Albert Camus’s The Plague, or plunged into Thucydides’ account of the plague that devastated ancient Athens. Not me. I have turned from all this and plunged into the strange worlds of fantastic tales. I must have read fifty of them over the past couple of weeks.
Such tales are enormously varied in style and tone, as I have suggested, but it seems to me that they have certain features in common. Ghost stories and other tales of horror concern unpredictable, sometimes ambiguous or indescribable, forces that display hostility or at best indifference to us; these forces impinge upon our lives in ways that we cannot control, and their advent forces us into either a new resourcefulness or, conversely, an abandonment of ourselves to panic or defeatism.
Well. Put that way, reading these stories doesn’t sound that different than living through a pandemic outbreak of a novel coronavirus. And maybe that’s why I’ve turned to them. “Tell the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson counseled writers; and fifty years later W.H. Auden spoke of readers like me: “When have we not preferred some going round / To going straight to where we are?” People often cry out for writing that, as we say, “speaks to our condition,” but more often than we might wish to acknowledge we are not prepared to have our condition spoken to directly. Another poet, T.S. Eliot this time: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”
When you’re looking at a painting in a gallery, you sometimes find that you need to step back a bit in order to see it whole, to grasp its structure and proportions. You don't get too far away; just far enough. Perhaps that’s what these stories have been for me: A step or two back from the details of our current predicament gives me the critical distance to process what’s happening with less stress, less mind-warping anxiety. I may look like I’m escaping, but I’m really not. I’m finding a perspective that allows me to work through these events without unnecessary emotional turmoil. I’m thinking this crisis over, thinking it through, even when I’m not consciously thinking of it at all.