Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural

This is just typical of me, you know. I blithely wander though life, not taking much notice of anything, and then something metaphorically falls into my lap which gets me all excited, only to discover that others know about it already. So, it has happened yet again.

The wife and I decided to take a trip out to the Ouse Valley Park on Saturday, situated in between the villages of Stony Stratford, in Buckinghamshire, and Old Stratford which, despite being only about a mile’s walk away from Stony, is in Northamptonshire. After a fab picnic by a duck-pond (including some rather nice wine, Chateaux de Marsan Première Côtes de Bordeaux Red), we stroll back through Stony to catch the bus to Milton Keynes. I, with my usual unerring ability, just happen to find a bookshop along the way. Every time this happens, I just have to go inside.

It is there, on the packed shelves, that I find a Wordsworth Edition of HP Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, edited by MJ Elliott, and Volume One in the Collected Stories. The book includes all the famous tales of his: Dagon, The Call of Cthulhu, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Dunwich Horror, The Whisperer in Darkness (of course) and At the Mountains of Madness. Also present in the tome are some less well-known stories: The Nameless City, The Hound and The Festival. Better than that, the book was priced at £1.75. Without further prompting I went and bought it.

Just reading that first story, Dagon, propelled me backwards in time to when I first read Lovecraft’s works. I think I must have been in my early to mid-twenties when I purchased the first volume in Grafton’s HP Lovecraft Omnibus series, At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels of Terror, which was quickly followed by volume two (Dagon and Other Macabre Tales) and volume three (The Haunter of the Dark) (and all with Tim White covers). I had been introduced to the reclusive Providence, Rhode Island author’s work (and Cthulhu) through references in, I believe (memory fails me slightly here), Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s seminal 1975 Illuminatus Trilogy (The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan). The idea of cosmic terror and of extraterrestrial beings that had existed long before we humans ever walked upon this earth fascinated me, sending wonderful thrills up and down my spine.

And now, I am in the process of revisiting them and experiencing those thrills all over again. Yes, the language and style is archaic and our sensibilities have changed immeasurably since they were written, in the early 20th century, and so many out there won’t share my enthusiasm for the stories, which is fine. Not everyone will like how they read, and the fact they don’t match modern expectations. However, for me there’s a certain ambience and atmosphere that is just so redolent of the era in which they were committed to paper, a feeling almost of yearning and nostalgia that, for some reason or other, I always manage to lock onto. When I read the tales I can feel that ambience suffusing my very bones – and for me it’s an incredibly delicious experience.

More than that, however, is the fact that, on further investigation (all praise the power of the interwebz), I discovered that there are about 70 books or so in the series, and all more or less published in uniform volumes. As well as the usual suspects, such as Bram Stoker, MR James, Ambrose Bierce, Wilkie Collins, Sheridan le Fanu, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James and Robert E. Howard, there are also ghostly stories from Rudyard Kipling, Elizabeth Gaskell (Cranford), and Edith Nesbit (The Railway Children), as well as authors I am not familiar with, such as Oliver Onions, Amyas Northcote, May Sinclair, Louisa Baldwin & Lettice Galbraith, and HD Everett. A veritable goldmine of the supernatural and bizarre.

Above all that, however, is the inclusion of some of those who would be considered authors of ‘classic’ literature, which, to my mind, goes some way to redressing the notion that supernatural and ghost stories (and, by extension, both the horror and sci-fi genres) are somehow ‘not literature’. All the ‘excluded’ genres have something to say about the human condition and about us as rational, thinking beings. Wherever we go as a species, we’ll will still be taking our concerns with us, and we will still be searching for our particular truths. The only difference being that these genres explore the same themes as ‘Literature’ but merely from a different perspective and using different settings. And that, really, is all.

I have, in my infinite (and inevitably sometimes faulty) wisdom, decided to collect as many of these volumes as I can, and, considering that they’re only £2.99 each anyway, it’s entirely feasible on even my meagre budget. Beyond that, I also want to collect other authors of the ghostly and macabre not featured on the Wordsworth list, such as Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. Then there’s the Pan series of books to collect and investigate, too. I think I do have a particular leaning towards the vintage stories and writers, although I absolutely love modern horror, especially in the short form. If nothing else, it’ll allow me to submerge myself in my ‘horror’ literary heritage, a pursuit I should have engaged in a lot sooner. I have a feeling, though, that there are good times ahead for me!!

(If anybody out there has any recommendations that you think I don’t know about and would like [especially Victorian and early-mid 20th century authors and books], then please feel free to let me know… thanks!!)

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15 Responses to “Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural”

  1. Simon

    You are on a slippery path… next it will be Ash Tree Press hardcovers. Just remember I told you 🙂

    Ash Tree have done/do great HC editions of many of the ghost story classics… If you can get your hands on their M R James Collection “A Pleasing Terror” it’s worth every penny. The E F Benson set is another must have. And the Robert Chambers. And…

    See what I mean 🙂

    Also on your search for older stuff. Have you read William Hope Hodgson yet? Carnacki the Ghostfinder, The House on the Borderland and a whole slew of great sea-based horror stories. Well worth seeking out.

    • Hey, Willie…

      The William Hope Hodgson’s The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghostfinder is available in the Wordsworth series… so yes, I’ll be going after that… I have the King in Yelow here in an original ACE paperback edition… must get EF Benson and also Edward Bulwer-Lytton, too, and anything of that nature…. apart from the fact that I love the old stories, it’ll help me in my writing… atmosphere and ambience are two qualities I particularly seek to put across in my stories…

  2. Andrew Murray Says:

    spend your time prowling through old second hand bookshops. anthologies edited by Hugh Lamb & Peter Haining are well worth a look for lovers of old horror. the Pan/Fontana book series of ghost/horror stories are sure to be available somewhere in the UK! how many bookshops are there? on of my favs is “London tales of terror” which has classic horror yarns from the gaslite period plus creepy real life terror tales! love old bookstores…:)

  3. Wordsworth Editions are excellent, and if you want to cast the net wider there’s a treasure trove of classic horror online at Horror Masters:-

    http://www.horrormasters.com/sub-genre.htm

    If you haven’t already done so, I’d recommend reading Lovecraft’s essay on “The Supernatural in Literature” for an overview of the field back in the 1930s.

    • I’m sure that one of the Grafton Omnibus volumes had that essay printed as an appendix (the first one, I think)… I certainly remember reading an overview of some description, starting from ‘Vathek’ and then going on to what would have been the present day for Lovecraft…

      Thanks for the info on the Horror Masters too, Peter!!

  4. It’s an appendix in the second volume, “Dagon and Other Macabre Tales”, and now that I’ve checked the correct title is “Supernatural Horror in Literature”. Oops!

    • I remember then that I wanted to get hold of all the books/stories he mentioned in his essay… I have a copy of Vathek somewhere in this house – will probably not find it until we’re clearing everything out prior to our move north of the border next year….

  5. Dagon! Five times this week I’ve come across it. I need Carl’s book and am interested and …as if it rose…from a collected unconscious :>). Closest to what I’ve ever seen.

  6. RIJU GANGULY Says:

    For lovers of classic supernatural fiction, the Wordsworth editions are heavenly gifts. On the first hand, they make available many works that had become practically lost, as a result of publishers’ desire to stay “in tune” with the present taste. On the second hand, the prices are very-very reasonable. Since there are no more hands left, I don’t think any more reasons can be cited in their favour; but aren’t they enough?

  7. One good discovery to be made in this series is Sir Andrew Caldecott’s Not Exactly Ghosts. If you like the ideas of divination by jellyfish, demonic parish magazines, or a ghost with a fancy for tweed trousers, you’ll love this!

  8. ian Darling Says:

    I really like the Wordsworth editions – check out the ghost stories of May Sinclair and Marjorie Bowen, they are well worth reading.

    Non Wordsworth, the writer of ghost stories (or nearly ghost stories) is Walter De La Mare who was the master of the “uneasy” story.

    Also the Fontana books of great ghost stories, the first eight or so edited by Robert Aickman who was another master of the genre and of whom there is a Radio 4 documentary next Tuesday morning.

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