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Reviews Mon Oct 26 2015

Review: Ghostly, edited and illustrated by Audrey Niffenegger

Just in time for Halloween, Chicago's own Audrey Niffenegger has edited and illustrated a collection of her favorite ghost stories from Edgar Allan Poe to Kelly Link in Ghostly, a fairly nostalgic take on the genre featuring a lot of familiar names.

Ghostly by Audrey NiffeneggerIf her name rings a bell, Niffenegger is the author of The Time Traveler's Wife, one of the best and most popular novels set in our city to be published in the 21st century, and adapted into a criminally inferior movie starring Rachel McAdams. Her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry -- which never received the same kind of attention as her debut, despite being just as sad and lovely -- was a ghost story, and Ghostly features a piece of her own short fiction, "Secret Life, With Cats," originally published in the Chicago Tribune.

Niffenegger still splits her time between Chicago and London, and until this summer was on faculty at Columbia College's MFA program in Creative Writing. When I ran into her at Joe Meno's book release party for Marvel and a Wonder at the Book Cellar, she said editing and illustrating Ghostly was a nice break from writing the sequel to The Time Traveler's Wife (The Other Husband).

As she clarifies in the introduction, Ghostly wasn't meant to represent the genre's best, but merely her own personal favorites, and that they aren't "scary" in the vein of horror writers like Stephen King or Laird Barron. "Some of them make me sad, some of them are extremely beautiful, all of them are surprising and strange. None of them make me want to go to bed with the lights on," she told Bookpage earlier this month.

Niffenegger's illustrations are beautiful and haunting as ever, her brief introductions are insightful, and some of the stories are particularly memorable. Neil Gaiman's "Click-Clack the Rattlebag" (from this spring's Trigger Warning) is the creepiest of the bunch, displaying his mastery of the very-short story form and introducing a new creature to haunt your nightmares. Kelly Link's "The Specialist's Hat" is a modern classic from 1998, where two young children get lost in their own fantasies inside a mansion of Crimson Peak proportions, featuring the kind of Inception-esque ambiguous ending that Link has become known for.

"The Mezzotint," a turn-of-the-century master class in suspense by England's M. R. James, is the story Niffenegger used to read aloud to her printmaking classes on Halloween, about a museum illustration that keeps changing when no one's looking. And "Tiny Ghosts," written by Columbia College MFA candidate Amy Giacalone, is even funnier than the great humorist P. G. Wodehouse's contribution to the collection.

However, as ghost story collections go, Ghostly is fairly old-fashioned, and doesn't do much to set itself apart from countless others on Halloween bookshelves. Grounded in the traditions of Gothic horror (black cats, creepy houses, something happening just off-screen), you won't find much here that you haven't seen or read before. The stories from Edgar Allan Poe, Edith Warton, Oliver Onions and Rudyard Kipling are standard anthology fare, but kudos to Niffenegger for including the voices of so many women, who are often minorities in these best-of compilations.

If you're looking for creepy stories with a little more bite and innovation, try one of Ellen Datlow's diverse anthologies or Nathan Ballingrud's debut collection, North American Lake Monsters. But for a collection of traditional Gothic-style ghost stories spanning the past two centuries, Ghostly is about the best you could ever ask for, even without the added pleasure of Niffenegger's illustrations and asides.

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