The Romance of Certain Old Tales: On Comfort Reads

It is certainly no secret to anyone who has known me for any length of time that I love Gothic horror.  I don’t think anyone will be shocked to read that old Victorian ghost stories are my favorite kind of stories in all the world.

I grew up on these stories, you see.  I grew up on stories of old manor houses and crumbling castles, secret passageways and candlelit corridors.  Stories of professors and students and the clergy, all learned men getting their logical minds blown by the supernatural.  Stories of heavy tomes filled with diabolical secrets found hidden away on library shelves in universities and cathedrals and ancestral homes.  Stories of hazy figures seen from a distance, blood-curdling screams heard from far away, inexplicable feelings of dread mixed with curiosity.

I read lots of modern horror.  I read mainstream authors and indie authors and authors that only three other people in the world have heard of. I’ve made my way through thrillers and slashers and mysteries, ghost stories and creature features and splatterpunk, western horror and Southern Gothics and body horror.  I like these stories.  They’ve made my heartbeat quicken, made me check the locks on my doors, given me goosebumps and nightmares.

But they aren’t comfort reads.

Everyone knows what comfort food is.  It’s that food that brings back pleasant memories of childhood and innocence.  It’s the food you eat when you don’t care about how healthy it is and only want that taste that makes your mouth water.

Comfort reads are similar.  They are stories – either specific stories or a particular kind of story – that get your endorphins going.  Oftentimes they are the stories you read when you first discovered your love of reading in general or of a certain genre specifically.  They are stories – novels, novellas, short stories, it doesn’t matter – that give you a sense of contentment, that push away all the stress and anxiety of reality and let you sink deep into their fiction.

Some might think that reading horror for comfort seems a bit strange.

I’m OK with being a bit strange.

I realize that not a lot of people my age grew up reading the same things I did.  RL Stine’s Goosebumps series became popular when I was in middle school, but by that time I’d already spent years reading the old ghost story anthologies that my grandmother owned.

A part of the appeal for me, I know, also lies in the fact that I shared these stories with my grandmother.  We were very close and very much alike.  She introduced me to these stories and these long-dead authors and then she discussed them with me.  Even when I was a young adult, if I read a good story I would call her up and talk it over with her.  Sometimes she knew the story, too, and we would talk about our favorite parts.  Sometimes she didn’t, and I would tell it to her in my own words.

Through her I discovered Edgar Allan Poe, MR James, Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Bronte sisters, Stoker, Shelley, William Hope Hodgson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Washington Irving, Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, Fritz Leiber, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Guy de Maupassant, and more.  These authors had the ability to pack so much story, so much emotion and so much atmosphere into so few pages.

For me there is nothing better than an old ghost story.  As a child I thought that to live in or even visit the settings of these stories would be the most delightful thing.  I wasn’t scared of them so much as drawn into them.  Who wouldn’t want to be sitting around a dying fire with a group of other scholars, telling stories to chill the blood?  Who wouldn’t want to wander the endless halls of old houses full of history while the cold seeps up through the stone floors to your bare feet and spiderwebs hang in dusty corners overhead?  Who wouldn’t want to come upon a book of ancient writings and have, just for a moment, all that arcane knowledge at your fingertips, a secret between yourself and the past?  Who wouldn’t want to unravel the mystery of the spectral figure that walks the beach at dusk or the inhuman howling that echoes through the grounds at night?

To hold in my hands those old books, leather bound collections from the early 1900s or the linen-covered copies produced mid-century…I felt like I held whole glorious haunted and romantic worlds between my fingers.

I was a painfully shy child, and like many other shy children, I found a great solace and refuge in books.  The beautiful thing about these old ghost stories is that most of the protagonists were also introverted people.  You rarely find multiple people in on the horror of the story; though they may seek out information or eventually need the help of others, the characters tend to face their fears all alone.

To me, fear is best when it’s quiet.  Much of today’s horror can be described with such words as: brutal, bloody, intense, disgusting.  Call me old-fashioned, but I will always prefer the kind of horror that can be described with terms like haunting, chilling, atmospheric, uncanny, unnerving.  To me these are a much deeper sort of horror, a kind that calls on not just the emotion of fear but also of sorrow, despair, longing, uncertainty, grief, loneliness, and a psychological questioning of your own soul.

There’s nothing wrong with modern horror.  For many people, it’s exactly what they want to read.  I myself have read and enjoyed plenty of it.  But for reading that keeps me up late into the night, for reading that reminds me of being ten years old, under the blankets with a book and a flashlight, for reading that makes me smile at the same time it makes me shiver, for reading that truly transports me, I, personally, have to go with the old tales.

There’s something about them that I don’t think any modern-style tales will ever match.  My soul took up residence in those drafty old houses and hidden rooms thirty years ago and I think it’s there to stay.

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