I like a good horror tale. I should emphasize the word “good,” though, because it’s getting harder and harder to find one. I’ll forever compare any horror/ghost story to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House because it’s such a great example of how to write a ghost story well. A pinch of Gothic, a dash of paranoia, and a liberal dose of atmosphere create a delicious recipe for creeps.
The Thirteenth Tale is the sort of gothic tale that reminds me why I like horror so much. It’s about an author named Vida Winter who, on her deathbed, decides that it’s time to come clean on her life’s story. See, in the past, whenever interviewers have asked her to tell them about her life, she made something up. As the narrator of this story tells us, twenty-one interviews led to twenty-one different life’s stories, none of which were even close to the truth. Ms. Winter hires a woman who has focused her attentions on biographies of the long dead to chronicle her story. Reluctant at first to write the biography of the best-selling author in England, the biographer finally reads a collection of Ms. Winter’s short stories, Thirteen Tales of Desperation and Change (which only contains twelve stories), and changes her mind. At issue, though, is whether or not the lure of a good story will derail Ms. Winter from finally setting the story straight….
This story is filled with Gothic atmosphere, which adds much to its appeal. Part of the story is set in a sprawling, decaying Victorian house; another part of the story focuses on a woman who is the only surviving set of twins; there’s even a reference to The Castle of Otranto, which pleased me to no end. The main characters are haunted by dreams of the past, and there are stories buried within stories throughout the novel. Oh, and did I mention the secrets? There are plenty of those, too.
Aside from all of that, though, The Thirteenth Tale is an ode to books and stories, and anyone who has, at one time or another, preferred the company of a good book to the harsh reality of the world will find something to appreciate in the theme. It’s a wonderfully mysterious story, and one that would be right at home being read during a torrential thunderstorm.