Vintage Treasures: The Macabre Reader edited by Donald A. Wollheim

Vintage Treasures: The Macabre Reader edited by Donald A. Wollheim

The Macabre Reader (Ace, 1959). Cover by Ed Emshwiller

Today, December 21st, is the Winter solstice and the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. What to do with those long winter night hours? Curl up with a blanket, a warm beverage, and a good spooky book, of course.

My pick for tonight is Donald A. Wollheim’s The Macabre Reader, his 14th anthology, published as a paperback original in 1959 and never reprinted in the US. It’s still considered one of his finest anthologies, even today, and has both a fine reputation and the benefit of a good print run — meaning copies are still very inexpensive. There are plenty of reviews out there; here’s an excerpt from one of my favorites, by Dem Bones at Vault of Evil:

Thorp McClusky – “The Crawling Horror”: Hans Brubaker’s farmhouse comes under attack from a colourless jelly which devours rats, cats and cattle before turning [its] attention to human prey. His beautiful young wife Hilda and the local physician Dr. Kurt are the only people who believe his seemingly insane story and help him secure the place versus the shapeless creeping sludge. All is well until eighteen year old Bertha Brandt turns up on the doorstep in the middle of the night…

Zealia Brown Reed – “The Curse Of Yig”: Oklahoma, 1925. An ethnologists’ researches into snake lore amongst the Native Americans leads him to Guthrie Asylum… [and] the tragic history of settlers Walker and Audrey Davis, whose anxieties over her wiping out a nest of baby rattlers culminate in madness, manslaughter and monster births. A pulp classic with a killer ending, reputedly revised by H. P. Lovecraft.

The Macabre Reader contains stories and poems by H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Donald Wandrei, Robert Bloch, Henry S. Whitehead, John Martin Leahy, and many others — all under a killer cover by Ed Emshwiller. It’s perfect for a snowbound winter night.

[Click the images for even more macabre versions.]

Inside cover copy for The Macabre Reader (1959)

If you’re like me and appreciate skillful two-sentence reviews, I think you’ll also enjoy the 2010 5-star Goodreads review by Graham.

Is there anything better than a musty paperback of pulp-era horror? I doubt it. Don Wollheim’s The Macabre Reader, from 1959, is a perfect example of that genre… here are my thoughts:

THE OPENER OF THE WAY by Robert Bloch: Bloch’s evocation of a Lovecraftian atmosphere (without stealing any of his monsters) is spot on here, in a story of ancient Egyptian horrors set in a rank tomb deep below the ground. The atmosphere is strong and gripping, the chilly climax uses imagination instead of gruesomeness, and is all the better for it….

IN AMUNDSEN’S TENT by John Martin Leahy: Horror unnatural and alien is alive and well in the Antarctic, in this superb pulp work which covers much the same ground as Lovecraft’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. However, Leahy’s tale is perhaps even more effective because, in its short narrative, it never shows the alien menace; it just hints at the creature, building suspense and tension and tons of horror… Grand and disturbing stuff that’ll put you off tents for life!

IT WILL GROW ON YOU by Donald Wandrei: The old ‘malignant growth’ storyline is a frequently-plowed furrow, but Wandrei invests his pulpish yarn with plenty of well-structured style, making it an entirely readable and grotesquely entertaining piece. The idea of a miniature person is a nightmarishly ghoulish one, the resulting tale both supremely weird and really rather ghastly…

THE CAIRN ON THE HEADLAND by Robert E. Howard: More ancient horrors from Howard’s night-tipped pen, here mingling together many of his favourite themes : the modern day rivalry and death-hatred between men; the ancient and time-honoured battles between barbarian tribes… and, of course, a horrible demon-creature to show up at the finale… a fine, deeply atmospheric story that holds together extremely well, remaining unpredictable throughout.

Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

The Phantom-Wooer by Thomas Lovell Beddoes (Death’s Jest Book, 1850) — poem
“The Crawling Horror” by Thorp McClusky (Weird Tales, November 1936)
“The Opener of the Way” by Robert Bloch (Weird Tales, October 1936)
Night Gaunts” by H. P. Lovecraft (The Providence Journal, March 26, 1930) — poem
“In Amundsen’s Tent” by John Martin Leahy (Weird Tales, January 1928)
“The Thing on the Doorstep” by H. P. Lovecraft (Weird Tales, January 1937)
“The Hollow Man” by Thomas Burke (Colliers, October 14, 1933)
“It Will Grow On You” by Donald Wandrei (Esquire, April 1942)
“The Hunters from Beyond” by Clark Ashton Smith (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, October 1932)
“The Curse of Yig” by Zealia Bishop and H. P. Lovecraft (Weird Tales, November 1929)
Greegree by Ray H. Zorn — poem (original to this volume)
“The Cairn on the Headland” by Robert E. Howard (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, January 1933)
“The Trap” by H. P. Lovecraft and Henry S. Whitehead (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, March 1932)
The Dweller by H. P. Lovecraft (1930) — poem

Our previous coverage of Donald Wollheim includes:

The Golden Age of Science Fiction: Donald A. Wollheim by Steven H Silver
Birthday Reviews: Donald A. Wollheim’s “Blueprint” by Steven H Silver
The 1975 World’s Best SF, edited by Donald A. Wollheim
Rich Horton on The Earth in Peril, edited by Donald A. Wollheim
The Editor As Author: Donald A. Wollheim’s The Secret of the Ninth Planet by Violette Malan
The Ultimate Invader edited by Donald Wollheim
Tales of Outer Space, edited by Donald A. Wollheim
Kirkus Looks at Donald A. Wollheim and the Ace Double

The Macabre Reader was published by Ace Books in 1959. It is 223 pages, priced at 35 cents. The cover is by Ed Emshwiller. It has never been reprinted, and there is no digital edition. It has been out of print for over 60 years.

See all of our Vintage Treasures here.

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Joe H.

That does look like a pretty solid collection, although I look at the description of “The Crawling Horror” and think to myself, “That sounds kind of *koff*ColourOutOfSpace*koff* familiar …”


I bought this way back in the early ’60s, and I remember how chilling many of these stories were (I was like 12 or 13 at the time). It was scary enough to give me nightmares: in one, the face in the bottom right corner of the cover was chasing me upstairs from our basement. I still have my copy, as well as the follow-up volume: “More Macabre,” which is where I first encountered Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” now considered a feminist classic.


Great stuff!
How I’missing the long gone times when this genre of stories would enchant me and scare me at the same time….

Chris L Adams

This single book introduced me to Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch . . . basically ever contributor. It had a lasting impact on my younger self.

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