Three Tales Of The Ghostly, Ghastly And Ghoulish

Originally published on August 11, 2011 5:25 pm

When people hear you're a writer, they often ask "where do you get your ideas?"

I sometimes wonder too, but in most cases I curb my curiosity. The eccentric private lives of certain authors, their unconventional lifestyles, their all-round touch of strange carry an implied warning — my friend, you don't want to know.


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MICHELE NORRIS, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

We seek out books for amusement or to expand their minds, but author John Baxter looks for something else. He delights in the creepy, dark and dreary. Here he is with the latest recommendations in our series, Three Books.

JOHN BAXTER: When people hear you're a writer, they often ask: Where do you get your ideas? I sometimes wonder too. But in most cases I curb my curiosity. The eccentric private lives of certain authors, their all-around touch of strange carry an implied warning: My friend, you don't want to know. I first read Mervyn Peake's "Titus Groan" in adolescence, which was probably unwise. The land of his "Gormenghast" trilogy, a Gothic realm ruled by the Groans, can invade the soul like rising damp. Peake was thin-faced, wild-eyed, often manic, but exuded talent. Before he could finish the third novel, "Titus Alone," he was confined to the hospital where he died in 1968. I think of him as another prisoner of Castle Groan, mute, but with the poetry of "Gormenghast" echoing in the dungeons of his brain.

BAXTER: Lafcadio Hearn was named for the island of his birth, Lefkada. A childhood accident left him with a blind left eye, which he regarded as a deformity. After a career in New Orleans as a journalist, he went to Japan. He felt less self-conscious there, married a Japanese woman and began explaining Japan to the West. And particularly, he liked its ghost stories, collected in "Kwaidan." My favorite is the tale of Hoichi, the Earless. Hoichi is a blind musician and poet. One night, he's summoned to play for what sounds like a party in a great hall. When a second performance is demanded the next night, a friend follows. He's horrified to see Hoichi being led by an invisible guide to the graveyard. His audience is the ghosts of those who died in the battle.

Edward Gorey achieved celebrity with his credits for the PBS series "Mystery." Fewer people know his tiny books in the same playfully grisly style. "The Gashlycrumb Tinies" is an alphabet of Edwardian children coming to untimely ends. M is for Maud, Gorey explains, who was swept out to sea. N is for Neville, who died of ennui. Gorey was often seen around Manhattan in an ankle-length raccoon coat and tennis shoes, headed for the New York City Ballet. He filled his house with collections: dolls, skulls, a mummy's hand. C is for Clara, who wasted away.

Whenever one writer I know is asked where he gets his ideas, he always replies: Schenectady. The fantasies of Peake, Hearn and Gorey suggest a source even closer to home. Gorey's friend Alexander Theroux thought he'd found it. He believed, he says, in the dark at the top of the stairs. And so, at heart, don't we all?

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NORRIS: John Baxter, he's the author of "The Most Beautiful Walk in the World." And you can discuss these and other books by joining the NPR Facebook community, just search for NPR Books and click like. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.