Spooky Stories

What we have in mind here is a rather simple approach to fully enjoying the Halloween season: Go find yourself some scary short stories, scurry home, lock the doors, check under the bed, and dim the lights. Here is a guide to the very best of horror literature, but, as far as finding them, we offer one this one clue: public library, first floor. Don't worry about being saddled with the trendy, lengthy efforts by Stephen King, Anne Rice, et al. We are focusing instead on literary heavyweights, a few obscure geniuses, and a couple of good old-fashioned storytellers. There's nothing here to burn the candle until midnight; just some quick brushes with dread and insanity for a fall afternoon. The categories are the fantastic and the supernatural, but any tale that conjures a lasting image or transports the reader to dark spaces and unknown spheres certainly meets our criteria. What does this offer the reader? Grand master of weirdness H. P. Lovecraft explains: "The most merciful thing in the world...is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should journey far." Fair enough; you can just take a few short journeys instead. Should you find yourself in a place from which there is no return, all the better; we'll come searching for you Halloween night."The Ash Tree" and "Lost Hearts" by M.R. JamesM.R. James was, first and foremost, a scholar; with a name like Montague Rhodes, such a calling may have been unavoidable. He is regarded by many as the English master of the ghost story; that's because James not only possessed the credentials to frighten his reader, he took personal satisfaction in "putting on a scare." These two stories, in spite of their genteel, Edwardian setting, seldom fail to keep the lights burning. "The Ash Tree" is a matter-of-fact, judge-for-yourself narrative that both delights and convinces the reader by marvelous understatement. The story takes place at Castringham Hall in Suffolk, England, and a brief chronicle of witch hunts in the early 17th century establishes an ominous background. The shuddery, grotesque occurrence that highlights this tale is logically connected to the witch trials, although exactly what is in or on the ash tree we hesitate to conclude. Long afterward one can't help recalling a character's profoundly unsettling comment, "There will be guests at the Hall." Equally chilling is the magnificent "Lost Hearts," an atmospheric tale of a young boy's visit to his cousin's mysterious dark manor. In a setting that cries out for Edward Gorey illustrations, the curious lad discovers that his relatives are involved in a distinctly cruel occult practice. The victims are, so it seems, a pair of orphaned waifs, but the conclusion suggests that there is an even darker side to preying on the innocent, and the irony of that side is compounded by the story's title."The Lame Shall Enter First" by Flannery O'ConnorO'Connor's peculiar, brilliant affinity for the South's darkest corners is well documented, but her grim analysis of human oddity is at its most unsparing in this tale. A social worker, bent on saving the world's unfortunate and neglected children, feels contempt and shame for the selfishness of his own child. In an effort to teach this child to appreciate (and perhaps share) his own good fortune, the do-gooder brings home his most tragic case. Meet Rufus Johnson: a lanky, sociopathic, dead-end kid with a grotesque club foot and a fondness for quoting the bible. His special interest is in those passages that deal with hell fire and damnation, and he often brags that he is hell bound himself. The social worker gives this monster a key to his home; but such benevolence, and the infuriating optimism that propels it, only fan coals of hatred behind the boy's eyes. Yes, charity does begin at home, but so do most nasty accidents. That's especially pertinent when dealing with someone who anticipates the fires of hell, or who may also anticipate taking someone along for company."The Cicerones" by Robert AikmanThis story is included in the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, and Aikman rightfully takes his place among legends such as Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Walter De La Mare. Surprisingly is that, of the 40-odd stories in the collection, which spans 150 years, "The Cicerones" is easily the most frightening. The story concerns a tourist, traveling alone, who visits a cathedral in Belgium. Hoping to avoid a crowd, he visits during off hours, and good arguments against touring dark, secret places are slowly compiled as he wanders through the vast cathedral. The clearest warning signs are the various paintings of torture, depravity, and images that convey something darker than the mere martyrdom of saints. The tourist is led to each work by a strange child who proclaims a title or description for each gruesome scene. This grim tour seems to have a forgone conclusion, and the author's particular talent here is to guide us through the scene as though it were our own nightmare. What is happening is bad; what is about to happen is worse, and we will make no effort to avoid it. After reading this perfect chiller, anyone who has visited St. Paul's or Winchester Cathedral will probably reevaluate the experience. Highly recommended."The Willows" by Algernon BlackwoodFor the characters in this bizarre tale, the smart move, the absolutely correct thing to do, would be to gather all their gear back into the canoe and paddle home. In fact, just forget the gear and leave immediately; then we won't be required to deal with the story's conclusion. Unfortunately, the two outdoorsmen can't hear our pleading over that strange hum that passes through the willow trees (or from the willow trees). Odder still are the hollow, conical indentations that cover the sand bars of the lost river they are exploring. For anyone who has experienced a kind of uneasiness about remote forests or wilderness areas, this tale magnifies that sensation to a finely sustained dread. Blackwood is revered for his prolific output of supernatural stories, but the Willows best captures the dreamy, slow-motion atmosphere that makes his tales so effective. This is perfect reading for the campfire or that favorite cabin back in the mountains."Seaton's Aunt" by Walter De La MareSo delicate and subtle is this masterpiece of suggestion that, upon its conclusion, one could argue that nothing supernatural, evil, or out of the ordinary has taken place. At the same time, clues are given in the story that compel the reader to add two and two and come up with one hundred. The story methodically but effortlessly reveals the unusual relationship between a young English lad and his aunt -- as observed through the eyes of a school chum. The aunt regards her nephew with mocking contempt; he returns the sentiment with considerable dread and suspicion. Exactly how she is able to know things she can't see, or why Seaton spies on her from secret corners is only hinted at. Their relationship is adversarial, but why these two are enemies we can only guess. The story ends in a mood that is eery but at the same time almost melancholy, yet an explanation is not sufficiently rendered. The answer simply hides in the corner with Seaton, or, like his aunt, knowingly peruses the reader. While we may not leave this story with anything that approaches understanding, we can almost believe that the strange woman's dark parlor, her spiteful, fearful comments, and Seaton's skulking about the house are actually personal memories from our own experience. That is the hallmark of a perfectly crafted story."The Dunwich Horror" by H.P. LovecraftThis is a short horror story mounted on a grand scale. The wildly violent nature and the scope of this story's events lend it an impact some novels can't muster. The tale has a unique feel as well, due mainly to Lovecraft's peculiar, stately manner of describing characters and settings. Indeed, the introduction is devoted entirely to an analysis of landscape and architecture, and you will believe you have been there. You might even accept as fact what supposedly occurs there. In rural Massachusetts just before the first world war, the decadent last line of a feared, cursed old family secretly gives birth to one of the most outre human oddities in American literature. The child's ghastly abnormalities in both appearance and behavior are too numerous to list here, but by his 10th birthday he was fully mature, and he was commonly described by neighbors as a "grown beast" rather than an adult male. His physical stature was more than matched by his mental prowess, and his expertise in ancient sorcery and the occult was prodigious. The story chronicles this horrid character's desire to complete, with the aid of a forbidden occult manuscript, a bizarre secret task. That task, as trite as it sounds, must be read to be appreciated. The destructive results of his efforts, accompanied by a truly repellent tableau of death and lunacy, form a titanic but somehow familiar rural nightmare. Included are a half-dozen stark, unforgettable scenes that are stories in themselves and Lovecraft's method of linking disparate events and times that has influenced much of this century's supernatural literature."The New Rays" by M. John HarrisonThis appallingly grim story is built around science fiction elements, but the end result is a bona fide, Class-A nightmare. Many critics regard Harrison's short piece as the most original work of fantasy fiction in the last three decades. In any event, the tale is closer in mood to Robert Aikman than Arthur Clarke or Isaac Asimov. This story is either the wholly mistaken version of events from a patient driven insane by radiation and chemotherapy, or it is a dark, horrific prediction of future medicine. To relate any of the narrative would give away several unpleasant surprises, yet there are some thoughts and images that merit attention. The rubber-suited, goggle-wearing attendants who assist the doctor in the factory-style shed are unforgettable, and the main character's notion that pain tastes like licorice is inspired. The most original elements in this traumatic spectacle are the blue, shadowy figures who remain each time the strange rays have "healed" another patient. Whether the creatures exist, or why the patient feels linked to their suffering is essential to understanding this bad dream. Not recommended for recuperative or hospital reading."The Tuckahoe" by Nancy EtchemendyThis creepy, quick little tale of rural Appalachia captures perfectly the mood of "head under the covers -- waiting for something" we have all experienced as children. The lad who narrates the story has every right to stay under the blanket, but common sense indicates that waiting in the corner, gun in hand, is probably a wiser tactic. He is the youngest of his hillbilly family; as such, he is the brunt of both neglect and torment. Ma and Pa won't listen, and his older brother picks on him. How odd -- or perhaps appropriate -- that he should be responsible for protecting the household from that "stuff" that waits outside in the rain. Read this one aloud at the next camp out. Those rowdy Cub Scouts won't stray far from the fire -- at least until daylight."Like Mother Used to Make," "Trial By Combat," and "Men With Their Big Shoes" by Shirley JacksonOur best advice is to get a volume of Jackson's short stories and freely immerse yourself in her world. You will find a quiet but malevolent universe where bad luck, harm, mishap, and adversity appear, like demons or bad angels, in the form of everyday characters. Once you encounter these walking bad omens, taking a wrong seat on the bus or mishandling a coffee cup can bring about disaster like a silent avalanche. Everyone is familiar with "The Lottery" and its survey of primitive or pagan survivalism, but these other short works are certainly worth experiencing, especially when taken together. The theme that binds them is the subtle but understandable horror of losing one's self. The threat is not that sudden or calamitous change will forever change us inside, but that everything we call "self" might be surrendered to a willful outsider who steadfastly (or secretly) demands it. The real monster in Shirley Jackson's universe is a nebulous thing called inevitable misfortune, and the victim is anyone still convinced of his or her own significance."The Great God Pan" by Arthur MachenMachen's stories have been called "cosmic fear raised to its most artistic pitch," and this particular item is the best of his dozen or so tales that deal with "hidden elements of horror." A character from this story encapsulates what Machen's work suggests; "If such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare." This rather long work is composed of separate diaries, manuscripts, and narratives, all of which lead to vague horrors connected with a doctor's experiment in consciousness-altering surgery. The behavior of the doctor's patient, as well as that of subsequent characters, suggests the personification of ancient demons. The not-so-vague conclusion points to something a bit more down to earth, yet imminently more terrible. The narratives are reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, but the possibilities are out of Rosemary's Baby. If such a hybrid sounds appealing, make the effort to find this story."The Picture in the House" by H. P. LovecraftThis small gem captures 20 or so minutes in the life of an unsuspecting victim; somehow Lovecraft injects into this small time span enough terror and loathing to fill a volume of short stories. The tale at first hints that the old farmhouses and shacks that dot New England's rural landscape are -- in and of themselves -- evil. In Lovecraft's words, "...there the dark elements of grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous." That's enough to keep most trespassers off the front porch, but the fellow in this grim anecdote seeks shelter in just such a dwelling. After rummaging through the odd tribal artifacts and queer volumes of occult writing that fill the old house, our traveler meets his host for the afternoon (and we thought the house was uninviting). The conclusion is foreshadowed by the most economical yet unnerving passage to date: "His madness, or at least his partial perversion, seemed beyond dispute." There are 31 days in October; use one of them to find this story."The Anchoress" by Beverly Evans "The Premonition" by Joyce Carol Oates These two stories work as companion pieces since, on at least one level, they are two sides of a single coin. "The Anchoress" echoes to some extent the narrative of "The Yellow Wallpaper," the latter being a definitive account of a woman's tragic mental decline. Evan's story, however, implies that there are other victims to consider if mother loses her mind. The horrific circumstances of this woman's descent inspire a kind of grim awe, and at the same time one wonders if her account of reality is entirely mistaken. "The Premonition" is a coolly deceptive tale of a woman's last resort in handling a domestic "difficulty." Although she insists on maintaining appearances, the wrapping paper, ribbons, and other holiday finery barely conceal the extent to which she goes to elude her abuser. Required reading for all unhappy housewives.

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