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Gothic Horror Fiction, Old and New

But it isn’t so much the detective story that makes “Things in Jars” such a triumph. Kidd’s imagination — her ability to imagine a world more magical, darker, richer than our own — is a thing of wonder. She rummages through the layers of Victorian society as if through an old steamer trunk, pulling up all variety of treasures, like pythons and heads in hatboxes. It was a relief to leave the present for Kidd’s imaginary past. Such escapism feels necessary right now, a tonic to the toxicity of the story-cycles of our contemporary moment, where information flashes on a screen and disappears, leaving one bereft of the deeply imagined mythologies — the merrows and mermaids of lore — that have, for centuries, sustained us.

It’s not a far leap from Bridie’s London to the mannered, opulent 19th-century Paris of Gaston Leroux’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Poisoned Pen Press, 283 pp., paper, $14.99). First serialized in France’s Le Gaulois magazine — and subsequently transformed by adaptations like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running musical — the recently reissued novel, first published in 1910, has become one of the most famous ghost stories that no one has actually read.

The novel opens when Christine Daaé, a minor singer at the Palais Garnier opera house, gives a performance that reveals her voice to be “superhuman.” She admits to her childhood friend, Raoul de Chagny, that her talent derives from the Opera Ghost, a spirit sent by her dead father. The Opera Ghost demands Christine’s love, which fills Raoul with jealousy. Add class tension, Parisians being Parisian, and a whole lot of quivering and fainting, and you have one of the most powerful Gothic romances ever written.

If opera and ghosts are not to your liking, you may enjoy K. J. Parker’s comic horror novella, PROSPER’S DEMON (Tor.com, 103 pp., paper, $11.99), in which an exorcist sets out to extract Them (as he calls the demons he hunts) from Prosper of Schanz, the tutor and confidant to the Duchess of Essen. Prosper doesn’t believe in demons, and resists, but the exorcist knows Them intimately. “To one practitioner They look like horrible insects; to another, ghastly, unnatural fish or rats, or disgusting birds, or shrunken, desiccated children.”

While this story has a fairy-tale setting, and is as far from our present reality as you can get, the exorcist’s humor, and his blasé approach to battling evil spirits, give the story a jokey, modern tone, as if Deadpool had slipped into the body of the Witcher Geralt. Now that is escapism at its best.

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