Leisure Learning: September 2023: Spooky Edition

by Melissa Haas
published in Reading

Word nerds, thank you for joining me in what is my most favorite post of the year: Leisure Learning: Spooky Edition. This month, readers can peruse Mary Shelley’s (actual!!) Frankenstein notebooks, become unmoored by art inspired by Poe, and hopefully, add one of the best darkly academic podcasts to a playlist or two. 

Since we love to hear from people who take both reading and writing seriously, please add your favorite or any overlooked scary works into the comments.  

Also, should you need something somewhat cerebral for your Oct. 31 proper, check out the extra links at the end, which are perfect for an evening’s worth of suspenseful, scholarly entertainment. 

Art Inspired By Edgar

This wouldn’t be a true ethereal round-up without featuring the Father of American Gothic literature, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s work set macabre imaginations on fire, influencing not only successive dark-hearted authors but also visual artists who jumped at the chance to explore the supernatural. Check out a slicing depiction of The Pit and the Pendulum, Manet’s stab at The Raven, and the otherworldly watercolors of Arthur Rackham in this compilation of the 25 most terrifyingly beautiful Poe illustrations

Fleshing Out Frankenstein

Can you imagine seeing how Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley fleshed out her masterpiece, Frankenstein? No need to imagine, thanks to the Shelley-Godwin Archive (S-GA), a joint collaboration between Harvard University, Oxford Bodleian, and other prominent libraries/cultural institutions dedicated to preserving the works of “England’s first literary family.” 

Witness the evolution of the actual Frankenstein manuscript – cross-outs, marginalia, and all – via Mary Shelley’s handwritten drafts. Prepare your human heart to shiver at the sight of these literary treasures! 

Haunting Horses

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of the most morbid yet beloved tales ever told this side of the pond. It is thanks to Washington Irving’s headless Hessian that horses have come to supply Halloween with a uniquely bucolic, spooky splendor.

Certainly, we can all picture the cape-wearing ghoul tormenting Ichabod Crane, but can you name the equine who made The Horseman’s murderous deeds possible? This infographic, courtesy of Mary’s Tack & Feed, will refresh your memory, as well as introduce other infamous literary steeds such as Sleipnir of Norse legend and more, aka The Spookiest Horses of Halloween

Lore Podcast

The Lore podcast is one of my all-time favorite podcasts. In a thirty-minute-or-less format, Aaron Mahnke (pronounced ~ “main-key”) does a terrific job of delving into lesser-known, rather macabre folklore as well as the historical events from which these grim legends may have arisen. The result is an episode of elegant, scary yet captivating storytelling that will leave you thinking long after a listen. 

Indulge that notion to dim the lights, grab some wine and have a notebook nearby while surrendering to any of the following: 

Episode 1 – “They Made a Tonic” (22:15)
This introduces listeners to the subject matter and tone of the series, most notably that lesser known legends are covered. Should you find the content a little too dark, Mahnke hosts a tamer version called Cabinet of Curiosities, which is perfectly acceptable to listen to in broad daylight. 

Episode 30 – “Deep & Twisted Roots” (29:58)
A vampire… in Connecticut?

Episode 41 – “Hole in the Wall” (27:10)
Covers the Paisley witches of Scotland. 

Episode 63: “Homecoming” (29:00)
H.H. Holmes’ “murder castle” in Chicago, where he made his own version of the 1893 World’s Fair. 

There are so many good episodes, complete with fog-filled music, that no matter which of the over 200 episodes you pick, it’s really hard to go wrong with any of them.  

Finally, please note that Lore is available as a visual series through Amazon and there are a number of Lore books that elaborate on the legends covered in the podcast. However, the podcast itself is many times better than either the show or even the books, so why not just go straight to the good stuff? 

Scary Stories To Keep Telling In the Dark

Over the past few years, the PEN Foundation of America has reported an uptick in books being banned from school libraries. As such, I felt it only appropriate to touch on the terrifying yet wonderful sleepless nights Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark brought to many of us die hard readers.

This Smithsonian Magazine article contextualizes the impact made by Alvin Schwartz’s literally haunting series as his books became some of the most banned titles of their time (ok, “my time” – the ‘80s and ‘90s). 

Were you aware that the ethereal, inky illustrations that still frighten some of us (ok, again, me specifically) were penned by an amateur, self-taught artist? Learn about how Schwartz personally picked this illustrator as well as why reading horror is different than watching it and more in this article, sure to give you chills of nostalgia.   

Should you want to make a night of it and keep rekindling these fright-filled fires, gather the family ‘round to watch not Guillermo del Toro’s version of Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark but the lesser known, yet more worthwhile Cody Meirick’s documentary Scary Stories, which relates how the author collected and assembled these legendary tales, all while his son thought his dad was wasting his life.*

(*Note: Now that he is an actual adult, Peter Schwartz has gotten his stuff together and since rescinded this position.)  


Haunting Ways to Spend An Evening

Ask A Mortician – Mortician-author Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube channel, where she answers a lot of questions about things otherwise unmentionable and has a playlist of historical death scenarios.

Cursed Films – Series that details the behind-the-scenes eerie occurrences from sets of famous movies such as The Wizard of Oz, The Omen, and The Exorcist. 

Dracula, The Ballet (1 hr, 45 min) – Produced by Northern Ballet – and yes, Renfield made the cut. 

Scariest Classical Music – Includes favorites such as Bach’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor and Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King as well as lesser known works that extend beyond the earthly realm. 

Technicolor (1 hr, 18 min) – John Langan’s update and expansion of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  Audiobook & text. 

Melissa Haas is the author and illustrator of Catula: The Misadventures of Dracula’s Cat and The Night Before Christmas (NOW WITH CATS), among others. Follow Catula’s whereabouts on Instagram @CatulaTheCat. If you’re interested in downloading free coloring pages or seeing Margaret Atwood with a blowtorch, check out more Leisure Learning related content at www.MelissaHaasCreates.com.

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