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Some Deathly Voices Beckon From the Other Side at Halloween

October 29, 2000|ROCHELLE O'GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sometimes only a scary story will do. That gothic gal from New Orleans, Anne Rice, has provided listeners with a spooky tale teeming with vampires and witches, body snatchers and ghostly visitors. This unabridged version of "Merrick" (Random House AudioBooks; seven cassettes; 11 hours; $39.95; read by Graeme Malcolm. Also available abridged, three cassettes, $25, or five CDs for $29.95; both are five hours; read by Derek Jacobi) is a vast improvement over her disjointed and overwrought last novel, "The Vampire Armand."

The story is a gathering of lost souls, so to speak. Rice brings together her three most popular bloodsuckers, the vampires Lestat, Louis and even the deceased child vampire, Claudia. Louis instigates the plot's action by imploring his friend, vampire David Talbot, to introduce him to the Cajun queen Merrick Mayfair, whose way with voodoo frightens even the undead. Louis hopes to persuade Merrick to bring Claudia back to life, a wish that calls to mind W.W. Jacob's classic tale, "The Monkey's Paw."

Rice wrote this novel after recovering from a diabetic coma a couple of years ago, and it is her most vivid and energetic book in many years. Narrator Graeme Malcolm emphasizes her decidedly gothic style with just the right amount of dramatic flair.

Malcolm has a refined British accent and the clear, crisp articulation of a classically trained actor. He slides easily into French and Southern accents, and his interpretation of Lestat is slightly growly and completely menacing. Everything about his performance matches, and even enhances, the moody atmosphere of Rice's chilling novel.

*

Another solid horror story can be found in "The Breathing Method" (Penguin Audiobooks; unabridged novella; two cassettes; three hours; $18.95; read by Frank Muller), a title that has been resurrected from Stephen King's collection of novellas, "A Different Season."

A group of middle-aged and elderly men gather regularly at an unnamed gentleman's club to drink fine spirits and regale one another with stories, scary ones, during the Christmas season. "The Breathing Method" is a tale told by a doctor about a woman determined to give birth, whatever the circumstances. It is followed by an intriguing afterward by King, explaining why he wrote the book and giving some insight into his life as a writer.

The tale within the tale is a juicy scarefest, but King really shines when describing the club, which sounds absolutely terrifying. Frank Muller, King's favorite reader, conjures up his usual vocal magic. One could listen to his lush voice endlessly. There is just a hint of devilry to his delivery, and he brings great energy to the afterward, even going so far as to add a silly Latino accent to highlight King's humor.

*

Anthologies of horror stories are easy to find and easier to discard, as most consist of overdone yarns from the usual suspects. Editor Clint Willis has compiled a lively mix of ghoulish ghost stories and sinister tales in "Dark: Stories of Madness, Murder and the Supernatural" (Listen & Live Audio; unabridged selections; four cassettes; six hours; $24.95; read by Colleen Delany, Grover Gardner, John Hitchcock, Graeme Malcolm, Vanessa Maroney, Simon Prebble).

Part of Willis' Adrenaline series of anthologies, this is a smart mix of complete stories, excerpts and even a poem, "Hume Burial," by Robert Frost. The stories range from "The Cafeteria" by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a tale about a post-WWII haunting, to the realistic horror of a woman slowly going insane in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." The stories are bizarre, ghastly or hair-raising, and all are extremely well written. This is one of the better collections of eerie fiction to be found in Audiobookland.

The readers are a professional bunch, and each is well suited to his or her material. An actress will read a story from a woman's point of view, a British actor will read one set in a not-so-Merry Olde England. All bring out the frightening aspects of these stories through finely crafted narration.

*

Movie buffs may want to check out a collection of 20 unabridged short stories and poems read by former stars of the silver screen known for their menacing performances, Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price. "The Edgar Allan Poe Audio Collection" (Caedmon Audio; four cassettes; six hours; $25.95; read by Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone. Also available on five CDs; six hours, $29.95) consists of old studio broadcasts released as LPs that cover a broad range of material, from the poems "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee" to stories "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Fall of the House of Usher."

This is an interesting, if flawed, collection that is unusual for both the narrators and the material. Caedmon may have digitally remastered these performances, but they could not clean up all the ambient noise, so there is often the annoying hiss of static in the background. It is more prominent in some places than in others, but it is often to be heard.

Price is a treasure. He has a wonderfully unusual voice and the uncanny ability to bring intimacy to the macabre. Rathbone's performance is more uneven. He thoroughly elicits the terror of Poe's short stories. One can hear madness rising in his voice or words that quicken and tremble with fear. However, his poetry readings are too stagy and mannered. It is difficult to get past his theatrical style and concentrate on Poe's nightmarish poetry.

*

Rochelle O'Gorman reviews audio books every other week. Next week: Dick Lochte on mystery books.

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