When it comes to choosing a scary read, I usually like a good ghost story. Dark, atmospheric, a few Gothic touches, a nearly palpable sense of foreboding, suspense. A good twist or surprise at the end is optional, but always welcome.
If you enjoy that sort of read, too, look no further than the work of Chris Priestley.
I wrote a review for his first book, Uncle Montagues Tales of Terror, last year. Since then I’ve read nearly everything else of his. At some point in future I will tell you all about Mister Creecher, because it’s brilliant. But at present it’s Halloween Countdown. Therefore, today I’ll be talking about the “Tales of Terror” books–Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, and Tales of Terror from the Tunnel’s Mouth.
Each one is set in the late Victorian era, and each one involves a child or children in mysterious circumstances being told macabre tales by an even more mysterious adult. Every book has its framing device–Edgar goes to Uncle Montague’s to visit, and is told stories about the provenance of the mysterious objects in Montague’s house, Ethan and Cathy are ill at home alone when a mysterious sailor comes into their father’s inn for a drink, and Robert is trapped in a train car with a mysterious red-headed woman.
And the stories themselves…
Priestley pulls no punches with these tales of terror. Cruel, nasty things happen in them, sometimes violent and bloody things. There’s madness, there’s revenge, there are monsters and ghosts and fairies. Each one is a gem of Gothic horror, and plays into the larger framework. Every story Uncle Montague tells, for instance, has to do with a child who met a nasty end. The sailor, predictably, tells tales of superstition, revenge, and ghosts aboard ship. And the red-haired woman offers tales of mysterious deaths.
While each tale works on its own, every book builds tension and suspense to the big reveal at the end. Oh, the atmosphere, the building intensity! Priestley is brilliant at it. We hear the stories along with the children, and, just as they do, begin to work out the identity of the mysterious storyteller, and what all of these tales have to do with each other. Tales from the Tunnel’s Mouth actually has several nods to the two prior books, and it’s great to see all of the interwoven details.
My favorite of the three is Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. Uncle Montague’s stories are the most disturbing by far, and Tales of Terror from the Tunnel’s Mouth has a pretty good reveal. But Tales of Terror from the Black Ship has both, and uses those elements in the best way, and the tension and suspense is wonderful. Unlike the other two, there’s a profound sadness to this one, a melancholy that makes a poignant counterpoint to the horror elements. The foreboding, uneasy atmosphere works the best in this one, too.
I also have to praise David Roberts’ fantastic illustrations, which I’ve scattered throughout this post. They’re very Edward Gorey-esque, moody and dark, matching the mood and tone of the stories perfectly. You can get to his website by clicking on any of the illustrations.
For me, the best horror is the kind that stays with you. It leaves you in a funny mood, makes you see things in the shadows, makes you double-check that your closet door is shut. It leaves images in your head. Chris Priestley’s Tales of Terror books do all of this, and are a must-read if you want a Gothic horror story this Halloween.
Here’s a link to Priestley’s website, and here’s his blog. You can find wonderful extras as well as reading suggestions from the man himself in both places. And here is the official website for the Tales of Terror books. Brilliantly done, morbidly funny, and creepy creepy creepy–it really gives you an idea of what his books are like.
And so does this book trailer.