This fine collection of fifteen stories straddles the thin border between the territory of ordinary anxiety and that of existential nightmare. These tales of dread and darkness do not feature the traditional demons that haunt country houses or pop up from unopened graves, but rather characters who inhabit the familiar scenes of quotidian life. These are tales of ordinary people, and this makes them all the more disquieting, and their horrors more sharply edged, precisely because they are set in modern, everyday reality. What all the protagonists have in common, regardless of age, status, or profession, is that at some point in their lives, by imperceptible degrees or with alarming rapidity, reality turns strange, the unthinkable becomes conceivable, and the specters of uncertainty, fear, and sometimes stark, sheer terror become constant companions.
Many of these stories are astute studies of compulsion, of forces so powerful they subjugate the will; others are of obsession, which reveals itself as perilously contagious, ensnaring those who struggle to free someone they love from the clutches of supernatural forces. The energies and tensions of family life also provide fertile ground: Robert Graves portrays tormented (and tormenting) couples, and Robert Aickman explores an idealized mother-daughter relationship. In other stories, notably those by Truman Capote and Joyce Carol Oates, the uncanny is encountered in an unsettling regression to childhood.
The supernatural has probably never been far away, usually hovering nearby as “blobs of the unconscious that have floated up to the surface of the mind,” as V. S. Pritchett describes the ghosts who inhabit the world of Le Fanu. In this post-Freudian world, and in this fine collection, we have writers who are unafraid to explore the meanings and parameters of the supernatural. From Elizabeth Bowen to Shirley Jackson, from Ray Bradbury to William Trevor, this is a selection that savors the shadows of these nocturnal landscapes, providing us with momentary (and always literary) encounters with this most foreign, and least humanized, landscape of ourselves, and then returning us to the light of day.
Some of the authors and stories that appear in Night Shadows:
M. R. James: Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad
Edith Wharton: Pomegranate Seed
Elizabeth Bowen: The Demon Lover
Truman Capote: Miriam
Hortense Calisher: Heartburn
William Trevor: Mrs. Ackland’s Ghosts
Alison Lurie: The Double Poet
Joyce Carol Oates: The Doll
Ray Bradbury: The Screaming Woman