Spooky Staff Picks: Smelly Ghosts and Sex-crazed Catholics


This Week’s Reading


From the cover of The Crown Derby Plate.

Almost a year ago, old friends gave me a big fat Portugese novel I’d never heard of, which promptly burrowed its way under a stack of old New Yorkers and stayed hidden until a month ago. It was a buried treasure. To get an idea of The Crime of Father Amaro, by Eça de Queirós, imagine a Trollope novel—early 1870s, cathedral town, church politics, Tories v. Whigs—except that everyone’s super Catholic, and sex crazed, and with the added difference that the author can’t ever quite decide whether he’s writing a bawdy comedy or a satirical tragedy, and so ends up writing both. This wavering tone must have been hard to translate, but Margaret Jull Costa’s 2002 translation makes it look easy. The Crime of Father Amaro is the best novel I’ve read this year. —Lorin Stein

Biblioasis is reviving an apparent tradition of reading ghost stories at Christmastime through a quintet of booklet-size publications, each containing a spooky story and designed and illustrated by the cartoonist Seth. It’s a lovely little set, with tales by Dickens, Wharton, A. M. Burrage, Marjorie Bowen, and M. R. James, but I haven’t saved them for Christmas (no one tells me what to do). I’ve already torn through the Burrage and Bowen, and while they aren’t bloodcurdling, they’re lots of fun. Burrage’s One Who Saw relates the tale of a man lured by the specter of a desolate woman in an ominous hotel garden. He describes his irresistible attraction to her as being akin to “starting on a voyage, feeling no motion from the ship, and then being suddenly aware of a spreading space of water between the vessel and the quay.” Bowen’s tale, The Crown Derby Plate, involves a dumpy, smelly spirit who won’t relinquish his beloved china collection. It’s not exactly a nail-biter, but Bowen manages an eerie description of wasted wintry marshes—“olive-brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on saffron-tinted bogs”—that bears the uncanniness of a Charles Burchfield landscape. —Nicole Rudick 

Though it’s been more than eight years since Harper’s published it, Joyce Carol Oates’s story “Suicide by Fitness Center” springs to mind whenever I pass a certain hip, chicly lit, vaguely exhibitionistic gym in Soho. The premise, as you may have guessed, involves an aging woman who decides to off herself at the Halcyon Mills Fitness Center, “a large windowless slab of cream-colored stucco in a pseudo-semi-rural setting on a formerly ‘country’ road that intersects with busy state highway 31.” The narrator makes a valiant effort to exercise to such excess that her heart bursts. It’s a mordant examination of gym-rat culture, but there’s a touch of grade A despair running through it that’s never left me. These many years later, the thought of it—of dying alone and on purpose, at some faceless Planet Fitness in some godforsaken suburb—still makes my blood run cold. Someone should open a haunted house that’s just a gym full of zombies. —Dan Piepenbring

Whenever I recommend Kelly Link’s 2016 book of stories, Get in Trouble, I typically regale whoever will listen with the time I first read “I Can See Right Through You,” my favorite from the collection. It’s about two actors/former lovers, Will and Meggie, who both debuted as vampires in a 1991 teen flick, and whose careers, some twenty years later, are still defined by a Tobey Maguire–Kirsten Dunst–esque make-out scene in that first film. Present action: Will’s career has been gored by a leaked sex tape in which a clitoral piercing shreds his foreskin; naturally, he seeks the old comfort of Meggie’s embrace, and thus disappears to the set of the ghost-hunting program she hosts. Without ruining anything, what follows is a ghost story masquerading as a gothic tale of Hollywood disgrace. Link employs the filmic technique of the Lewton Bus on the page better than anyone I’ve yet encountered: hers is an excruciating, story-long slow burn that’s so subtle you don’t even know it’s happening—until you really, totally do. —Daniel Johnson

I’d like to thank whatever unhinged mind is responsible for Dinald Trimp, a carbuncular miracle of Internet art. It’s no secret that 2016, thanks in no small part to one man, is a burbling hell-broth of fear, hostility, and pure American id. But who will dare to show us the gaping, fleshy maw at the center of that id? Who will scald our eyeballs in that hell-broth, and then scald the scar tissue caused by the first scalding? I’ll tell you who: Dinald Trimp. This is monster making as a public service. It will make you want to detach your retinas. —D.P.