Category Archives: Books

Freaky Places: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2012


My favorite two stories in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2012 (ed. Paula Guran) both involve what I think of as uncanny landscapes: places where time doesn’t work, and where something wants to suck you in and make you stay forever. 

In “Objects in Dreams May Be Closer Than They Appear” by Lisa Tuttle, a long-divorced couple reconnect via Google Street View:

This whole terrible thing began with a link [Michael] sent me by email with the comment, “Can you believe how much the old homestead has changed?”

Taken to a Google Earth map of the house they’d once owned together in the small English village of Tavistock, the nameless narrator remembers how draining the house-buying process had been, how they settled on a house that didn’t fit either of their needs (and ultimately contributed to the dissolution of their marriage). But she also recollects the house that got away:

And then one day, traveling between the viewing of one imperfect property to look at another which would doubtless be equally unsatisfactory in its own unique way…we came to an abrupt halt. Michael stopped the car at the top of a hill….

I saw immediately what he was looking at through a gap in the hedge: a distant view of an old-fashioned, white-washed, thatched-roofed cottage…. It was a pretty sight, like a Victorian painting you might get on a box of old-fashioned chocolates….

But try as they might, the couple can’t seem to find their way to the cottage. Michael becomes obsessed, buying map after map, completely unable to locate the cottage or the road that would take them there. Eventually they ask an elderly estate agent in a nearby village who immediately tries to shut down their inquiry: the house was not for sale, it didn’t exist, it was bad luck to try and talk to the owners.

Fast-forward twenty years: the narrator and her ex-husband are invited to an anniversary party for their friends back in Tavistock, who they haven’t seen for many years. After the party, the divorced couple decides to try and find the Victorian cottage again using the wizardry of GPS.

And of course, they find it. As our narrator winds up the path, she feels a creeping sense of dread:

I knew it was impossible, yet I remembered this visit… I’d peeked through that window on the right, and saw something that made me run away in terror.

I’m really drawn in by stories with a strong sense of place — doubly so if the place is weird, whimsical, or (even better) hell-bent on destroying whoever might wander in. What I love about this story is that there’s no clear villain. Tuttle tells just enough about the house and the landscape but stops short of explaining what’s really going on. She plays on that universal desire to belong someplace — and then suggests maybe that desire isn’t quite as wholesome as we think. –Christine

Next: “Near Zennor” by Elizabeth Hand


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Spooks, Character and Place: The Somewhat Lost Art of John Bellairs

blue_figurineGrowing up, my very favorite author was John Bellairs (1938-1991). He wrote middle-grade and young adult novels about hapless young protagonists (mostly boys) who end up trapped in supernatural adventures.

It saddens me that so few people remember Bellairs today. Oh sure, there’s an online fan community — a really great one. But he’s hardly a household name. He’s unknown even to many of my geek friends, the people who by all rights should have been salivating over his books right along with me during their awkward teen years.

Bellairs wrote great yarns. They always built to flashy climactic battles. In The House with a Clock in Its Walls, plump Lewis Barnavelt had to duke it out with the ghost of a dead sorceress in his basement. In The Curse of the Blue Figurine, the spirit of an insane priest possesses poor Johnny Dixon. Johnny ends up at the top of a mountain battling for control of his soul.

The icing on the cake? Edward Gorey drew the covers and frontispieces of all of his books. Yeah, Edward Gorey! I get chills even now, thinking about those spindly drawings of skeletons and creeps and swirling leaves.

Joyful were the days I’d go to my local library and see Bellairs’ latest book on the shelves, all crisp and shiny in its plastic jacket cover.

Looking back now, I think the appeal of the books for me lay not just in their exciting plots but in their characters and impeccable sense of setting.

My favorite Bellairs character was Professor Childermass, Johnny’s neighbor and ally on most of his adventures. Professor Childermass was so cranky and curmudgeonly that he kept a Fuss Closet in his house — a room where he retreated during dark moods to bellow obscenities and beat the padded walls.

Bellairs’ heroes and heroines were often displaced misfits — actual or practical orphans who lived far from their parents. Lewis Barnavelt lived with his uncle and Johnny Dixon lived with his grandparents. These living situations made literal the isolation and loneliness of adolescence — especially the kind of adolescence experienced by many young book readers. J. K. Rowling would take a lesson years later.

And then there were the aging, cozy-but-spooky small towns where the novels took place. Bellairs himself had lived in both the Midwest and New England, and he used his memories of both regions to great atmospheric effect.

Lewis Barnavelt and his best friend Rose Rita Pottinger lived in New Zebedee, Michigan; Johnny Dixon in Duston Heights, Massachusetts; and Anthony Monday in Hoosac, Minnesota.

All three towns were fictional but based on real places. They all featured the shabby churches, factories, echoey Victorian houses and sepulchral autumns that so dominate the memories of anyone who’s grown up in the American East or Midwest. Of course ghosts and black magic existed in these places. How could they not? And in many ways, the settings were more haunting than the supernatural events themselves.

Bellairs was heavily influenced by the work of early 20th century horror writer M.R. James. James invented the “antiquarian ghost story,” in which the inciting incident was often the discovery of some ancient and mysterious object.

In turn, he was a pioneer of the “supernatural realism” so popular in film, TV and novels today. He’s well overdue for a reconsideration. And please, when that happens: Get rid of the cartoon covers on the current editions of his books and bring back Edward Gorey!


Filed under Books, Place, Supernatural and Weird Fiction