Culture

Ghosts, Ghouls, Goblins—and One Seriously Spooked Bookseller

Culture

Ghosts, Ghouls, Goblins—and One Seriously Spooked Bookseller

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Otto Penzler, owner of The Mysterious Bookshop and all-around pulp fiction buff, is also an accomplished editor. Roughly once a year, he edits a collection of stories for Black Lizard Press. Past volumes include The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, The Big Book of Adventure Stories, and Zombies! Zombies! Zombies. This year, he gives us The Big Book of Ghost Stories, a thousand-page tome packed full of spooks and spectres which is perfect for reading round the campfire—or, for our readers in lower Manhattan, round the flashlight. Bullett emailed Penzler last week to ask him some questions about the genre.

When assembling a collection of this length, how do you keep it focused? Is the theme of ghost stories enough to bind it together, or do you need something more? 

Ghosts, or any of the BIG anthologies I’ve done, is pretty well focused. The book has a huge range, from the Victorian classics to the pulps to the moderns. The one overwhelming element I tried to focus on was that they be readable, well-written, fun (that’s three, but they coelesce into one).

I’m a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s over-the-top Gothic storytelling. Who are some less well-known authors who wrote in a similar vein?

Pulps writers, of which there are many in the book, some of whom are relatively unknown. G.G. Pendarves, Paul Ernst, Henry S. Whiehead, Wyatt Blassingame, Greye La Spina, Henry Rousseau—none of them will ever be accused of being restrained stylistically.

How long does it take you to put together these collections? What’s your methodology like?
About a year. I tend to read about a thousand stories in order to select the 75 or so that go into the book. I make some lists of stories that I remember having loved, then I read several reference books to remind me of authors and/or stories that have slipped away into the mists of time. I reread every story, no matter how well I think I remember it because my taste is sometimes different than it was 30 or 40 years ago. For Ghosts, Vampires and Zombies, I also had conversations or correspondence with experts in those fields which sometimes tipped me to a terrific story that may be largely unknown.

You write in the introduction that you read over 1,000 stories to assemble this Big Book—did doing that research teach you anything really surprising about ghost stories?

Not really. It’s a rich, full genre of literature and I expected to enjoy the reading process, which I did, and was confident that it would be a great read for anyone who likes good stories. Maybe I was a little surprised at how many good humorous stories there were, and maybe also a little surprised at how many well-known mainstream writers had tried their hand at writing ghost stories, often with outstanding results.

Which of these stories are particularly suited to reading aloud on Halloween?
As it happens, I was just on Pia Lindstrom’s Sirius Radio show and she asked me to read a story. I found about a half-dozen that would have suited, including “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, “The Terrible Old Man” by H.P. Lovecraft, “In at the Death” by Donald E. Westlake, “The Burner House” by Vincent O’Sullivan, and “A Ghost Story” by Mark Twain, but we settled on “Mordecai’s Pipe” by A.V. Milyer because it is relatively unknown and builds to a nice climax. The only thing they have in common, besides being really good, is that they were short.

Have any of these stories been successfully adapted to the screen? If not, are there any ghost movies that you particularly like?

As short stories, they’re not really suited to be made into full-length motion pictures, but many, many of them have been filmed for such television series as The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Outer Limits, and the various dramatic anthology programs that were the staple of early television. Oscar Wilde’s hilarious The Canterville Ghost was a theatrically released movie, starring Charles Laughton. Without doing research, I’d bet half the stories in The Big Book of Ghost Stories have been televised, including “The Furnished Room” by O. Henry, “Mr. Arcularis” by Conrad Aiken, “The Monkey’s Paw,” of course, “The Moonlit Road by Ambrose Bierce, and “August Heat” by William Fryer Harvey. My favorite ghost movies tend to be somewhat romantic, like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Ghost, Portrai of Jennie, Stairway to Heaven, The Bishop’s Wife.

Have you ever dressed up in a Halloween costume that you’re particularly proud of?

Ah . . . wrong guy. I don’t dress up in costumes.