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Unsettling Chapters: Edgar Allan Poe

If you’re like me, autumn is a state of mind rather than a season. The world is rich with color and wonder, at once thrilling and reflective. It’s a reminder that, yes, everything dies, but that, like the turning leaves, we are most beautiful at the last.

And if you’re like me, Halloween is not a day to dress up as somebody else, but rather the one day a year that the rest of the world sees things your way.

With that in mind, starting today, Ensuing Chapters and Transgress digital magazine are teaming up to make this autumn even better. To supplement your Halloween horrors, each day, from Oct. 1 through Samhain, we’ll be posting reviews and discussions of some of the most frightening books ever printed.

Think of it as a literary advent calendar for All Hallows’ Eve!

We’re calling it Unsettling Chapters. Ooooooh!

Some of these will be short stories, some novels, and whenever possible, we’ll include a link for readers to access works that are available online.

A few disclaimers:

To be clear, we’re talking about terrifying reads. This does not necessarily mean horror, though expect plenty of the genre to make the list. There will be short scares, epic thrillers, transgressive mysteries, literary horrors and more than a few classics. The common thread is that they will all be unsettling in some way.

It’s also worth noting that this is not a “best of” or any attempt at a definitive list. This is simply a collection of a few dozen literary works that have kept me up at night. There are plenty of books out there that I haven’t read yet. Please, offer suggestions of titles I’ve missed. I’m always looking for more good reads for myself… and for next year’s list.

We begin this series with Halloween’s go-to author, Edgar Allan Poe. It’s difficult to actually specify a particular book of his, as there are hundreds of collections of his work, themed and otherwise, sometimes complete, sometimes not. You really can’t go wrong with any of them, and for our purposes, we’re going to use my personal favorite, a leather-bound, early-’90s edition, The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

It’s just not autumn without a dirge or two from Poe. This anthology gives you plenty to choose from—the ghoulish, the grotesque and those gloomy Gothic tales that warm the soul. Of course, his classics are all here, such as my favorite, “The Masque of the Red Death” (which terrified me as a child and chills me as an adult with its social commentary). There’s “Hop-Frog,” the ultimate revenge tale, and the haunting decay of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

And Poe reminds us that love is eternal in one of his lesser-known and most demented pieces, “Berenice,” which revels in both the endearment and dangers of amateur dentistry.

Poe’s works are in the public domain, and you can download all of them for your e-reader at Project Gutenberg. Stories can also be read online through the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, including the following recommended texts:

“Berenice”

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

“Hop-Frog”

“The Masque of the Red Death”

Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier article of mine, “Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween,” which appeared in the Boulder Camera in 2008.

Life After Death, Damien Echols

At the height of the ’80s Satanic Panic, I was a prototypical blasphemer. I played Dungeons & Dragons, blasted Shout at the Devil at maximum volume, plastered Metallica posters on my wall, read the Necronomicon, gorged myself on horror cinema and wore a daily uniform of ripped denim and black T-shirts.

According to Al Gore’s wife, I was a bloodthirsty soldier for Satan. Oh yes, me and my virginal D&D pals—who could perform about 15 push-ups combined—were dangerous, alright.

But the tragic nadir of the Satanic Panic was the case of the West Memphis Three, a trio of teenagers wrongfully convicted of child-murder in rural Arkansas.

The case first attracted media attention for its lurid qualities—abduction, mutilation and supposed Satanic Ritual Abuse. It later attracted attention for the hillbilly witch hunt that resulted in the trial of the West Memphis Three. Two of the boys received life sentences while Damien Echols, the alleged leader of the trio, was sentenced to death.

After two decades of public outcry, numerous books and feature films, the three men were finally released in 2011.

On Sept. 18, Echols recounts his experiences in Life After Death, available in hardcover and e-book. Echols has previously published his poetry, nonfiction and the 2005 memoir Almost Home. I’m excited to read what he has to say about the years since then.

Much has been written on the horrors of the Satanic Panic, but the definitive account should rightfully come from Echols, one of its biggest victims—a man who was nearly put to death on account of mass hysteria.

The saving grace for our justice system is that it’s not a posthumous release.

Check back for info on more upcoming releases throughout the week.

Public Radio Horror

Gotta dig it when NPR loves on the horror.

NPR’s PG-13: Risky Reads, a series in which young authors discuss the mature books that steered their literary appetites from comics to classics, has featured a number of seminal genre works this summer.

Most recently, Victor LaValle shined on Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, with a special shout-out to “The Midnight Meat Train.” All aboard.

D.W. Gibson recalls being haunted by Roald Dahl’s terrifying Someone Like You.

And Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, lays some love on one of my all-time favorites, Stephen King’s It. This is a deliciously horrifying trip down memory lane–or rather the sewers of memory lane.

Second-String Sociopaths

On Tuesday, Harold Schechter‘s new book, Psycho USA, hit the shelves. Last month, I interviewed Dr. Schechter on topics such as the new book, true crime as cultural history and recent rampage violence. He offered insights both witty and wise. Read the full profile here or at Transgress digital magazine.

Killer Reads

Sure, Harold Schechter is a great historian and has a nose for inter­esting subjects. But what makes his writing so compelling is his flair for storytelling. “The challenge I set myself is to transform thou­sands of pages of dry documents into a compelling narrative.”

No surprise. He is, after all, a literature professor. Great writing is also a family affair. He is married to the poet Kimiko Hahn and the father of YA author Lauren Oliver.

Schechter is currently taking a sabbatical to focus on his next book, a full-length treatment of Robert George Irwin, “The Mad Sculptor.” Mean­time, readers can dig into Psycho USA, and newcomers would be wise to explore his earlier works as well. These are narratives that dissect our cul­tural history to the marrow. Profiles that reveal insights about our species usually reserved for psychology texts. Harrowing tales that horrify, in­form and stay with the reader long after the final line.

Deranged

This was my introduction to Schechter’s writ­ing—and the fiendish Albert Fish. The narrative is as gripping as Fish’s actions are nauseating. Pedophilia, murder, canni­balism. This is a must-read for anyone—just not after a heavy dinner. Here you will learn where the tastiest part of the human anatomy is. You’ll learn about the perineum—and its functionality as a pin cushion. You’ll also en­counter the man who took on the electric chair—and won.

Sort of.

Most of all, you’ll get a glimpse of American culture as the Roaring ’20s segued into the Great Depression; taste the deadly cultural cocktail of na­ivety and anonymity that allowed a child-murderer to flourish; and mine the depths of religion and pathology.

Deviant

Ed Gein was a mild-mannered grave robber in rural Wisconsin in the 1950s. Nobody back then could have imagined the impact he would have on Hollywood. Gein has served as the inspiration for three successful book and film franchises: Psy­cho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs.

A bio like that would typically earn one a Hollywood star.

It earned Gein a life sentence in a mental in­stitution.

We don’t want to give away too much of the good stuff. Let’s just say you wouldn’t want to hire Gein as your interior decorator—unless you’re re­ally into “organic” lampshades.

Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Vio­lent Entertainment

Violence in the media is nothing new, and Schechter chronicles humanity’s obsession with violence through the centuries. An informative and fascinating book.

The Serial Killer Files

It was a toss-up between this and The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. I was inclined to blurb the Encyclopedia for nostalgic reasons, as 1997 was a hell of a year—and that was one hell of a book.

It also garnered more buzz as it was in step with the times (think The Profiler). The Serial Killer Files came out post-9/11, and serial killers weren’t the bogeymen they’d once been (think 24).

However, this compendium is the ultimate roadmap to the darker shadows of our species. And it makes a great con­versation piece on your bookshelf.

The Whole Death Catalog

2009’s tour-de-force of final breaths will leave you… well, breathless. It’s Lonely Planet meets Last Rites. What more can you say about a book that markets itself as leaving “no gravestone left unturned”?

To check out more of Schechter’s books, visit www.haroldschechter.com.

The Violinist’s Thumb

As if I didn’t have enough to read already, July’s scorching book release schedule just went nuclear. On July 17, Sam Kean’s briefly titled, The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code, hits shelves (and my Nook).

Kean is a science writer as anecdotal as he is analytical, able to reveal the characters behind the clamps, condensors and graduated cylinders. His books engage you first and foremost with their stories, but Kean’s greatest talent might be his ability to make hard science accessible to non-lab rats.

His previous book, The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, turned chemistry into compelling literature. It is easily one of the greatest books I’ve ever read (no small statement), and had this been my high school textbook, I’d have gone to graduate school for chemistry rather than English.

This time, Kean reveals the secret history of DNA. I’m almost afraid to learn about the mishaps, misdeeds and happy accidents of our genetic code. If The Violinist’s Thumb is anything like his other work, the book should come with a CAUTION sticker: Likely to cause uncontrolled fits of learning and laughter.

I haven’t scored a peek of the new one, but here is my review of The Disappearing Spoon. Thankfully, Sam Kean heard my plea to write a follow-up. For this reviewer, it will be the most anticipated release of the summer.

July Book Preview

July is a great month to catch up on all the great books you’ve had sitting on the shelf. And while we certainly encourage you to dig deeply into that backlog, our motto is that a good life is one long in years and longer on books—that way you never run out of books to read.

Or perhaps a more T-shirt friendly slogan would be (to paraphrase Bradbury): May my heart expire before my library card.

For that reason, it’s always good to bring some fresh blood to the bookshelf—and in the case of these new releases, we’re talking about blood in the literal sense.

July 2

We’re not entirely sure what to make of this, but it seems that Rob Zombie has a book coming out, a preview for his much-anticipated film, Lords of Salem. Zombie fans have been waiting for a new original work for some time, following the disappointment of two money-grab *Halloween remakes. Lords of Salem the film should be sweet, and a pre-release book of the same name would be icing on the cake.

Other notable releases this week include The Nightmare by Swedish thriller writer Lars Kepler. The Nightmare is the sequel to his international bestseller The Hypnotist, and it has already garnered raves in his native land. Keeping with the international theme, prolific Japanese author Kenzo Kitakata returns with his latest hardboiled thriller, City of Refuge.

Anthology fans receive an Independence Day treat with the July 4 release of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2012, featuring more than 500 pages of frights.

July 9

Upon its hardcover release, I was skeptical of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One—a literary take on the zombie apocalypse. Having learned more about the author, however, I’ve added it to my “to-read” list. This isn’t a literary snob taking a cheap shot at genre. Whitehead has had a lifelong love affair with all things geek. His essay, “A Psychotronic Childhood,” should be required reading for all college English majors, and the paperback release of Zone One should be an excellent summer read.

Shadow Show is a collection of stories inspired by and in tribute to Ray Bradbury, featuring work by Dave Eggers, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill and others. Speaking of Joe Hill, he has produced, along with artist Gabriel Rodriguez, the graphic series Locke & Key. The first volume, Welcome to Lovecraft, is being released as a special edition hardcover on July 10.

I am a huge fan of Russian novelists, and on July 15, renowned anthologist Otto Penzler presents the paperback edition of The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense. This compendium features such heavyweights as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Gorky, Pushkin and Nabakov. Some of the all-time greatest writers at their all-time grittiest. Sign me up.

7/16

The great James Lee Burke, master of scene description, continues his Dave Robicheaux mystery series with Creole Belle. In this installment, our complicated hero is fighting morphine addiction, personal demons and the ever-present Bayou bad guys. What makes Burke’s novels so engaging is that his protagonists are vulnerable, troubled—more haunted than hunted. For Robicheaux, the past is as great an adversary as any criminal, and this makes him the most well-rounded literary figure in the mystery genre. I can’t wait to see what Burke is cooking up for us this time.

Essayist Jim Holt reframes the big question of how we got here in Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. This philosophical work of nonfiction noir calls a lineup as colorful as The Usual Suspects in this historic whodunit.

7/23

This week sees the paperback release of Stephen King’s magnificent counterfactual tome, 11/22/63. Concerning the JFK assassination, I was at first skeptical about this work of alternate reality. But King delivers one of his best-ever books—this one about a small-town teacher discovers a time portal in the back of a burger joint. This book takes on issues of history and politics, but it is the human narrative that drives it. The result is an epic work as heartbreaking as it is harrowing.

In the academic arena, Spider Monkeys: The Biology, Behavior and Ecology of the Genus Ateles hits the shelves on July 26. This collection of published and previously unpublished research explores the secret lives of these adorable primates. Hey, it’s a book about spider monkeys. How can that miss?

7/30

July finishes strong with Future Lovecraft, a sci-fi take on the Cthulhu Mythos. The paperback edition comes out on Aug. 1, but Nookies can download their copy now for a mere $3.99. Featuring a collection of up-and-coming horror and sci-fi authors, this anthology lends a fresh voice to familiar friends, such as Nyarlathotep (whom friends simply refer to as the Crawling Chaos).

Professor of religion Richard T. Hughes challenges popular misconceptions in his book Christian America and the Kingdom of God, which comes out in paperback on July 30.

Finally, Boulder author Carrie Vaughn closes out the month with the latest installment of her Kitty series, Kitty Steals the Show. This time our hero is the keynote speaker at a paranatural conference in London. When a conference of vampires schedules for the same time, however, the ongoing struggle between the undead ramps up.

Ensuing Chapters appears monthly in Transgress digital magazine. Regular updates appear weekly at the Ensuing Chapters blog.