The old-fashioned ghost story has never fallen out of style: Charles Dickens is still best remembered for A Christmas Carol, and Peter Straub, despite his many fine novels, found in the ghost story his most potent tale (Ghost Story, of course!). When Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw, did they know they were creating their most-remembered works in the horror genre?
Barbara Michaels has written everything from outright horror (Ammie, Come Home) to horror cozies (The Crying Child), but her new one has more in common with Peter Straub's Ghost Story (without the violence) than with anything she's written before. As several men gather in a special club to discuss unexplained mysteries of the past, an aura of chilly darkness surrounds them.
The men are famous and the time is the past. In a London Club, Houdini, Conan Doyle, and other psychic investigators and debunkers gather to tell ghost stories. Their purpose is to tell the tale, and then each will pick it apart to try to find an explanation for the phenomenon in question. The first story is one of the most famous historical hauntings in U.S. history: the Bell Witch in Tennessee. The second is a moderately well-known haunting in Stratford, Connecticut, called, appropriately, the Stratford Haunting. Each tale is told, and then the guests gathered around the club describe their understanding of whether the hauntings are either fake or very real.
But an eerie edge begins to creep like fog into each tale,andalthough there is no Grand Guignol to Michaels's novel, there is a decidedly eerie and yes, old-fashioned feeling of dread. Imagine a séance with some of the best storytellers gathered around the table, or a fire at a campsite, or even the distinguished London club where these men congregate. Michaels captures this mood better than most, and she has a way of telling a tale that is never violent but features a mounting fear of the unknown that persists and becomes captivating.
Those unfamiliar with the Bell Witch and the Stratford haunting will enjoy hearing these stories as well as the various solutions proposed by the august assembly. In the second section of the novel, which deals with the Stratford haunting, a new guest joins the men's table to tell the tale, and in many ways Other Worlds becomes more thrilling as this one a story of family madness and human experimentation from a previous century begins.
When you pick this novel up which you should think Hawthorne, think Melville's short stories, and you'll definitely see the mastery of what I'd term a horror cozy that Barbara Michaels has at her fingertips. This novel is not for anyone who loves outright violence in dark fiction, but for the millions of readers who love a good ghost story, superlatively told.
Douglas Clegg is the author of numerous horror novels, including The Halloween Man and Bad Karma, written under his pseudonym, Andrew Harper. His recent Bram Stoker-nominated short story, "I Am Infinite, I Contain Multitudes," can be found in the anthology The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Volume 11.