The Penguin Book of the Undead
Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters
Edited by Scott G. Bruce
Penguin Classics. 295 pp. $17.
Reviewed by Paul M. Cobb
nolead ends The scariest stories you'll read this Halloween were written 1,000 years ago. This wonderfully fun and creepy anthology, lovingly curated by Scott Bruce, a medieval historian at the University of Colorado, is ideal for anyone fond of zombies, ghosts, ghouls, ancient horrors, and dread warnings from beyond the grave. And who isn't, am I right? Along with Penguin's Book of Ghost Stories and Book of Witches, it completes a sort of trilogy of spookiness that is wickedly entertaining, accessible, and surprisingly informative.
From Homer's Odyssey to Shakespeare's Hamlet, this book contains tales of the undead from places you might already know, but most are from places you surely have not, ripped as they are from saints' lives, medieval chronicles, Nordic sagas, miracle stories, and treatises on necromancy, and translated here for the first time to scare the bejeezus out of you.
I double-dog dare you to read, without getting creeped out, about the spectral, unkillable, monstrous seal that haunted an Icelandic home or the malevolent ghost of Thorolf, who had to be walled in to keep him from wandering. But easily, for me, and for many readers, it is the different versions of the story of Hellequin's Horde that will keep you awake, tales of a demonic hunting party or ghostly army cursed to trudge aimlessly through the forests of this world until they gain relief from their punishment - a tale that resonates for all of us who are doomed to run the rat race for a living, or who are hopelessly stuck on one night a year chaperoning costumed children wherever porch lights glow.
Paul M. Cobb is professor of Islamic history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades." He doesn't scare easily.