Book Worm: Grandmasters of horror

This Halloween, take advantage of Philadelphia’s connection to the authors of both ‘Dracula’ and ‘The Raven.’

Of all the holidays celebrated in the Anglo-American world, only Christmas offers a literary pedigree equal to that of Halloween. The horror story, of course, is a year-round phenomenon –but at no time during the year is the thrill of reading a truly-frightful chiller quite the same as during these last few weeks of October.

Like a heartwarming Christmas tale, a good horror story can become a tradition. Thus, books like Dracula and Frankenstein become late-October institutions, just as A Christmas Carol and The Gift of the Magi might be read and re-read every December.

Yet reading is a solitary pursuit, and as the days grow shorter and the nights colder, we find ourselves pining increasingly for the company of our friends and family. How, then, to reconcile the autumnal desire to immerse ourselves in the literature of the macabre with the even stronger drive for human proximity? If you live in Philadelphia, it’s not all that hard.

Philadelphia, where Edgar Allen Poe resided while penning some of his finest stories and where Bram Stoker’s original notes for Dracula now rest, could well become a pilgrimage site for lovers of literary horror (and, indeed, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation is trying to make it one). For residents, the Poe House and Rosenbach Museum (where Stoker’s notes are located) should already be October traditions.

But we’ll cut you a break. Maybe you haven’t lived in the city for long, maybe you just haven’t yet had the chance to check out either site. And that’s fine – because there’s hardly been a better time to start up such traditions than now, with both the Poe House and Rosenbach presenting Halloween-themed events designed to enlighten, rather than frighten, their audiences.

At the Poe House at Seventh and Spring Garden streets, the Friends of Poe kick off their celebration of his January 2009 bicentennial with a Halloween-night reading of The Raven by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (played by actress and television personality Cassandra Peterson). The reading starts at 5:30 p.m., but the celebration will last until 7 p.m. This night will also highlight the Friends’ activities and other events surrounding the Poe bicentennial.

The Rosenbach Museum and Library at 20th Street and Delancey Place, meanwhile, has already been celebrating its “Release the Bats” Dracula Festival for a few days now. The annual Dracula puppet parade around Rittenhouse Square, for instance, was held on Saturday evening. However, you’ve still got time to catch the tail end of things. “The Growth of Stoker’s Dracula,” the festival’s third and final hands-on tour of Stoker’s original notes, will be led by Dracula scholar Elizabeth Miller at 3 p.m. on Oct. 29. Three hours later, Rosenbach guest curator Patrick Rodgers will lead a gallery talk linking the Dracula Festival to the museum’s current showcase exhibit of author-illustrator Maurice Sendak’s work. “Monster’s Ink: The Bogeymen in Sendak’s Closet” examines and explains the roots of Sendak’s monsters in Where the Wild Things Are and beyond.

Philadelphia history is about more than just the Liberty Bell and Continental Congress. Attending either one of these celebrations means whetting your taste for both history and horror in one fell swoop.

Peter Chomko can be contacted at

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