Looking for the perfect Halloween gift for the nasty woman in your haunted house? Try â€œLiterary Witchesâ€ (Seal, $20). Itâ€™s an enchanted anthology of 30 great female writers â€” from AnaÃ¯s Nin to Zora Neale Hurston. Each one is captured in a folkloric illustration by Katy Horan and then, on the facing page, illuminated with a bewitching description by Taisia Kitaiskaia.
These mini biographies â€” â€œthe hexen textâ€ â€” are more witchopedia than Wikipedia. Kitaiskaia boils each writer down to three invocations, weaving historical facts with her own surreal visions. Emily BrontÃ«, for instance, â€œWatcher of the Moors, Fantasy, and Cruel Romance,â€ â€œmakes a telescope from ice and twine. Though this tunnel, she stares into her own eye until she sees a galaxy, and through the galaxy until she sees a strangerâ€™s eye.â€
Gertrude Stein, â€œMadame of Roses, Geometry, and Repetition,â€ â€œis a spider, weaving a web of funhouse mirrors. â€¦ For Gertrude, each word is a hedgehog in a metal cage.â€
If you know the writers, these symbol-laced musings are evocative; if you donâ€™t, theyâ€™re alluringly mysterious.
You can encounter the women in any order â€” itâ€™s impossible not to flip back and forth â€” but the cumulative effect of these incantatory reflections is unsettling in the best way. And if youâ€™re provoked to find out more, each write-up concludes with three well-chosen reading suggestions either by or about the literary witch.
In their brief preface, Horan and Kitaiskaia give a rousing defense of their title: â€œAll artists are magicians, and Witches wield a special magic. Witches and women writers alike dwell in creativity, mystery, and other worlds. They arenâ€™t afraid to be alone in the woods of their imaginations, or to live in huts of their own making. Theyâ€™re not afraid of the dark.â€
For something steeped in the macabre, check out the irresistible â€œThe Ghost Boxâ€ ($32), edited by comedian Patton Oswalt. This is the latest from Hingston & Olsen, a little Canadian publisher whose creations remind us what e-books canâ€™t do.
â€œThe Ghost Boxâ€ is a collection of individually bound stories laid to rest in an elegant box that snaps shut like a tomb (maybe thereâ€™s a magnet; maybe itâ€™s magic). The authors range from old masters like Arthur Machen and W.F. Harvey to still-living writers like Dennis Etchison and George R.R. Martin. (H.P. Lovecraft makes an appearance, too, in a surprising way.)
These creepy little booklets, ranging from five to 53 pages, offer a whole night of entertainment around the campfire â€” or read them alone if youâ€™re brave enough. There are monsters and spirits, murderers and mad scientists and, of course, narrators losing their sanity (some know it, some donâ€™t).
Oswalt, who won a Grammy last year for his album and stand-up comedy special â€œTalking for Clapping,â€ might seem an odd editor for this ghastly collection, but as a teen he loved scary stories. â€œI was an â€™80s kid,â€ he says, â€œwhich means my gateway was Stephen Kingâ€™s â€˜Night Shiftâ€™ collection, and then I gobbled up Peter Straub and James Herbert and Harlan Ellison, and from that point on, I spiraled backward into Matheson and Lovecraft and Machen, and I pretty much never emerged.â€
When he mentioned the idea of â€œa Halloween horror story advent calendarâ€ to Hingston & Olsen, the publisher jumped on the idea like Dracula on a virginâ€™s neck.
Oswalt says his selections for â€œThe Ghost Boxâ€ were guided by Lovecraftâ€™s edicts from â€œSupernatural Horror in Literatureâ€: â€œMood and setting, and the subtlety of something amiss in the cosmos. All of these stories have that in spades, until they donâ€™t, at which point some of them grab you by the lapels and start scaring the bejesus out of you.â€
Heâ€™s right. And remember: THE STORIES ARE COMING FROM INSIDE THE BOX!