Grisly Slabs of Gothic Horror

Grisly Slabs of Gothic Horror

In the introduction to WEIRD WOMEN: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852-1923 (Pegasus, 384 pp., $25.95), the editors Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger write that horror often seems to be a “genre bereft of female writers.” Here they set out to correct that misperception, highlighting stories by women writers whose work has fallen into obscurity.

One of my favorite stories in this excellent collection is by the British novelist Marie Corelli (1855-1924). A popular author in her day, she regularly outsold her contemporaries Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, yet her work has all but disappeared from print. Her story, “The Lady With the Carnations,” is a compact masterpiece in which a woman is drawn to a portrait in the Louvre and begins to encounter the subject of the painting — a lady with carnations — first at the opera and again in Brittany. She concludes that the woman is an illusion, but whether she is real or a figment of her mind doesn’t matter: The narrator carries the scent of carnations with her like a curse.

There’s a fine line between the horrible and the sublime, and Joanna Ebenstein’s ANATOMICA: The Exquisite and Unsettling Art of Human Anatomy (Laurence King, illustrated, 272 pp., $35) walks it. This collection of “strikingly beautiful, challenging, even bizarre” anatomical illustrations explores “our attempts to come to terms with the tragedy and wonder of being born into a body, and the certainty of our own death.” Paging through, one finds bodies in various states of undoing — dissection, surgery, pregnancy — and the result is repulsive and resplendent in equal measure. The human body, one feels while looking at these prints, is both an intimate and shockingly impersonal thing. Gazing at people opened up and displayed so coldly evokes one of the horror genre’s most defining traits: the visceral, almost primal, need to see what frightens us, even while covering our eyes.

An etching by Cornelius Huyberts of fetal and infant skeletons is particularly hard to turn away from. With skulls arranged as delicately as a tower of profiteroles, this 18th-century memento mori is both morbid and magnificent: We are here today, it seems to say, and gone tomorrow, so make the most of it. And indeed, Ebenstein writes that she hopes the book “might itself serve as a memento mori of sorts.”

Ebenstein, creator of the Morbid Anatomy blog, points out that in the Renaissance dissection of the human body was a form of spectacle performed for “a paying public” and “often part of the festivities related to carnival celebrations and might be accompanied by drinks and music.”

Those who like to stream movies will find Bruce Lanier Wright’s NIGHTWALKERS: Gothic Horror Movies (Castle Bridge Media, 178 pp., paper, $24.95) an essential guide. Originally published in 1981, and just reissued in paperback, Wright has curated a list of Gothic movies, rated each one, and situated them in the larger horror canon. He is interested in the enormously popular features produced by Britain’s Hammer Studios, particularly “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and “The Mummy” (1959), which both star Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, “the twin kings of the Hammer repertory.”

For Wright, Gothic is about mystery and awe, and he laments the rise of the modern horror film as “Grand Guignol” entertainment, so named after the “theater that offered prototypical gore thrills to Parisian audiences.” Wright argues that the Gothic offers “unambiguous representations of good and evil” and expresses the “spiritual dissatisfaction with contemporary life … and a slightly perverse nostalgia for a time when mankind knew less and dreamed more.”

As J. W. Ocker’s CURSED OBJECTS: Strange but True Stories of the World’s Most Infamous Items (Quirk Books, 270 pp., $19.99) demonstrates, curses can come in all shapes and sizes, taking refuge in everything from King Tut’s tomb to the Ring of Silvianus, which some people believe inspired J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” Ocker describes dozens of curses but, thanks to “Nightwalkers,” I was most fascinated by the cursed objects that inspired horror films — like Annabelle, the haunted doll, and a dybbuk box containing a malicious spirit that spawned the film “The Possession.”

He also discusses ways in which curses are cast. The Romans and Greeks chiseled stones with curses, the Vikings had nithing poles — wooden poles carved with invective — while the Japanese inscribed ill wishes on plaques called ema.

While Ocker tends to breeze over many of his objects without getting under the surface, his book is so fun that I couldn’t put it down. It reminded me that life is short, death is nigh and a little humor can help us seize the day just as well as a memento mori.

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