Category: Horror Literature
These are the most disturbing and most long-lingering stories from supernatural fiction that I've encountered (or vice versa) in my life of reading creepy stories.
Today, the Eve of All Saints bears little resemblance to its ancient ancestor, the pre-Christian, Celtic Samhain, or Night of the Walking Dead, when the walls and curtains between the material and spirit worlds crumbled and frayed, and nonhuman spirits and souls of the departed prowled the Earth. Good folk stayed indoors, cringing in corners and praying for morning, while the warped and shriveled faces of coal-eyed devils and empty-eyed corpses leered at them through cracks in doors and window shutters.
If you'd like a taste of the original Night of Horror, then build yourself a different atmosphere this Halloween. Toss out the candy corn, plastic pumpkins, pillowcase ghosts, stuffed scarecrows with mindless smiles, cheesy sound-effects records, Dracula dolls ... and get scared.
Douse the lights except for one candle, enough for one person to read by. Read to yourself, or to another, or best, to a small group. A group amplifies the feeling of horror by resonating it among its members and at the same time creates a (false) sense of security. Fear loves company.
I've been reading ghost and horror stories since I tell letters apart. Those I've showcased in this article are the ones that have hit me hardest over the years and still do. By the way, if you're in the mood for psychopathic slicer-dicers, degenerate splatterpunk, screaming human shark food, or suchlike butchers' row grue, skip this article. That trash has nothing whatever to do with true horror, which is men and women face to face with the Unknown, the Outside, the Supernatural, what philosopher Rudolph Otto called "the Wholly Other" and Sigmund Freud "the uncanny," or "unheimlich." For a look at what makes for a true horror story, refer to the short treatise, "Supernatural Horror in Literature" by horrormeister H. P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937), wherein he tells us:
"The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule, (i.e.) the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present.
"The one test of the really weird (story) is simply this: whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers, a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim.
"Human beings will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse."("Supernatural Horror in Literature" by H.P. Lovecraft, Dover, 1973).
The stories herein express the Lovecraftian view, though the list is far from complete. Allowing for individuals' variations in taste, most of them should scare the living tar and lights out of you but also leave a sense of awe and wonder, of having been in the presence of the Uncanny, of having rubbed shoulders and elbows and minds with something beyond everyday human ken.
For each story vignetted, I give, besides the title and author, a very brief synopsis, a creepy quote, and an available source for the story (not necessarily the only source). Quotes have been slightly paraphrased in some instances for the sake of space and coherency.
"Negotium Perambulans," by E. F. Benson (1867 - 1940), is is a fitting start-off story, the title being part of a Latin inscription that a summer vacationer finds in a medieval English church. The entire line reads "negotium perambulans in tenebris," meaning "the pestilence that roams in darkness." The tale features a slithering, shambling, ghostly creature monstrously nonhuman in appearance and behavior.
"It was more deadly to the soul than any pestilence that can only kill the body: it was the Thing, the Creature, the Business that trafficked in the outer Darkness."
"The Room in the Tower" is a young man's tale of a recurring nightmare that at last looks like it's going to come true . An accursed painting that refuses to stand still and a confrontation with a shadowy, cadaverous specter cap his unenviable adventure.
"In that flash [of lightning] I saw another thing also, namely a figure that leaned over the end of my bed, watching me. It was dressed in some close-clinging white garment, spotted and stained with mould..."
"How Fear Departed From the Long Gallery" starts off in a light, humorous tone, then gradually and skillfully grows more sinister and flesh-crawly. The old English estate of Church-Peveril is riddled with ghosts, harmless and non-threatening, except for those in the Long Gallery, which is off-limits to everyone after nightfall. Madge, a visitor, is left alone and falls asleep one late afternoon on a couch in the Long Gallery, and wakes up in near-darkness.
"As Madge half-rose she caught sight of her own arms lying out on each side of her on the grey velvet sofa. But she could not see where her hands ended, and where the grey velvet began; her fingers seemed to have melted into the stuff. The strangling terror of real nightmare began: she knew that she was being transformed into this grey stuff."
All three of the above stories are included in "The Collected Ghost Stories of E.F. Benson" (edited by Richard Dalby; Carroll & Graf; 1992; in paperback).
"The House and the Brain," by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), is a variation on the theme of spend-a-night-in-a-haunted-house-without-losing-your -marbles, featuring a powerful and menacing ghostly presence and a kaleidoscope of hallucinatory images that accompany the specter.
"It was a darkness shaping itself out of the air in very undefined outline. I cannot say it was of a human form, and yet it had more of a resemblance to a human form or shadow than anything else. Its dimensions seemed gigantic; the summit nearly touched the ceiling. As I continued to gaze I thought that I distinguished two eyes looking down at me from the height.'' (In "H.P. Lovecraft's Book of Horror,' ' edited by Stephen Jones and Dave Carson, Bames & Noble, 1993, paperback).
A tale along similar lines is "The Red Room," by H. G. Wells, whose reputation as a science fiction writer overshadows his several supernatural fiction stories. Once again, a lone individual challenges the malignant entity of a haunted house, daring to do what no one before him has yet accomplished: spending an entire night in the Red Room. Our hero begins his vigil by planting 20 lit candles (there is no electicity)all about the room, finishing with a hearty fire in the fireplace. Then, one candle flickers out, then another ... then another ...
"The shadow in the alcove at the end in particular had that undefinable quality of a presence, that odd suggestion of a lurking, living thing, that comes so easily in silence and solitude. At last, to reassure myself, I walked with a candle into it, and satisfied myself that there was nothing tangible there. I stood that candle upon the floor of the alcove, and left it in that position." This story can be read online at http://www.twilightharbor.com/moonmistress/stories/R edRoom.html
"The Chimney" by Ramsey Campbell (1946-). Another take on the recurrent nightmare theme by a modern master of the horror tale. A burned, charred, shriveled monstrosity haunts an old fireplace. (In "Whispers," anthology edited by Stuart David Schiff, Jove/HBJ, 1977, paperback).
"Mujina," by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), is about why no one dares to walk along a certain uphill road. Quite short (two pages) and quite unforgettable.
"Before the era of streetlamps and jinrikshas, this neighborhood was very lonesome after dark; and belated pedestrians would go miles out of their way rather than mount the Slope of Kii, alone, after sunset" (In "Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things," by Lafcadio Hearn, Dover, 1968).
"The Whistling Room" by William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918). The ghost of a Medieval troubadour, murdered by a jealous king, infects an Irish castle so thoroughly that it can change the shape and structure of the stone walls and floor, and nearly deals a hideous end to career ghostbuster James Carnacki. This features one of horror literature's most unique and bizarre ghosts. (In "Carnacki The Ghost Finder" by William Hope Hodgson, Panther, 1973, paperback).
"Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "Count Magnus" by M.R. James (1862-1936), whose imaginary ghosts make alleged ghosts seem cartoonish and superficial in comparison. James' creatures are malignant, loathsome, tangible, and truly unforgettable, lingering in memory even after the titles and plots of their stories have been forgotten. Mortals in James' tales often have the unique misfortune of touching, or being touched by, the ghosts before they actually see those ghosts, and regretting it . . . assuming they keep their lives or sanity.
In "Oh Whistle..." the irony of the title becomes apparent while reading the story. A vacationing Englishman, Professor Parkins, poking around in Roman ruins, digs up an ancient thing like a military whistle engraved with Latin characters. He sounds the whistle and summonsSomething, and nearly parts with his wits when It arrives a few days later.
"Then he turned over sharply, and with his eyes open lay breathlessly listening. There had been a movement, he was sure, in the empty bed on the opposite side of the room. It was quiet now. No! The commotion began again. There was a rustling and shaking, surely more than any rat could cause."
In "Count Magnus," another Englishman, Mr. Wraxall, conducting historical research in Sweden, disturbs the mausoleum of the long gone but still dreaded Count of the title, summoning him forth along with his hideous, non-human, squid-like sidekick. There are old local tales about men who went hunting on the Count's estate after his death, and who ended up dead or hopelessly mad. Wraxall now has unwelcome company he can't shake, even when he's back in England.
"So the villagers went to the wood (of Count Magnus's estate) and they found these men on the edge of the wood. Hans Thorbjon was standing with his back agains a tree, and all the time he was pushing with his hands, pushing something away from him which was not there. And they led him away, and took him to the house a Nykjoping, and he died before the winter; but he went on pushing with his hands." (Both stories in "Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories" by M.R. James, Oxford U. Press, 1987, paperback).
"Behind the Stumps" by Russell Kirk (1918-1989): As with several others of his stories, Kirk set this one in the impoverished "stump country" of rural Michigan. Mr. Cribben, a sourpussed, pettily authoritarian state tax assessor and collector, bullies the citizens of the driftwood town of Bear City into paying long overdue taxes, all except the feared and enigmatic Gholson family. Undaunted by numerous warnings from the townspeople, Cribben marches on the Gholson homestead for a reckoning . . . and is treated to the shock of his life, as you will be, in one of the best story endings in all horror literature.
"A broad corridor, and at the head of the corridor, a door that stuck. The stillness infecting him, Cribben pushed his weight cautiously upon the knob, and the door yielded. Holding the lamp above his head, he was in. Marble-topped commode, washbowl holding a powder of grime, fantastic oaken wardrobe and a tremendous Victorian rosewood bed, its towering head casting shadows upon the sheets that covered the mattress. There were sheets; and they were humped with the shape of someone huddled under them." (In "Uncanny Banquets," edited by Ramsey Campbell, Little, Brown & Co., 1992, hardcover).
In "Black Man With A Horn" by T.E.D. Klein (1947-), an aging fiction writer crosses paths and destinies with a missionary back in the U.S. from Malaysia and on the lam from some unknown pursuer. Whatever the nature of the predator, it's soon after the writer as well, who in the meantime does his own research and connects his follower with various macabre Malaysian myths. The missionary turns up dead and the writer knows his own time is running out.
(In "Dark Gods" by T.E.D. Klein, Bantam, 1985, paperback).
"The Colour Out of Space" and "The Dunwich Horror" by H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937): In "The Colour..." a meteor with strange properties and seeds falls on a rural Massachusetts farm. Soon plants, animals, and people start to look and act strangely, and glow with the unknown colors of an unearthly spectrum. The strangeness quickly escalates as people pit: puny wits and powers against The Colour, hatched from the meteorite, a malignant, vaporous, and vampiric entity that seeks souls for food. Everyone I know who's read this story, including me, has gotten nightmares from it. Hopefully, so will you.
In "The Dunwich Horror," the inbred Lavinia Whately, of the decayed backwoods town and citizenry of Dunwich, Massachusetts, gives birth to a son fathered by a demonic, nonhuman entity. "Wilbur," that son, is only superficially human, and the Whateleys are keeping Something huge, powerful, invisible, and very much alive, imprisoned in the upper story of their house. When Wilbur gets into major trouble in the neighboring town of Arkham, the Something gets loose. Its identity is revealed at the end of the story. (Both stories in "The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft," edited by S.T. Joshi, Dell, 1997, paperback).
"The Double Shadow," by Clark Ashton Smith (1893 - 1961) elaborates on one of sorcery's most ancient rules: "do not call up that which you cannot put down, against which your most powerful methods may be useless." C. A. Smith was contemporary with H. P. Lovecraft and wrote similar tales of dreaded entities from unknown and unfathomable realms. In this story, career sorcerer Avyctes and his apprentice, Pharpetron, find a metal talisman engraved with an unknown script. By magical means, the two are able to translate the writing, whose source is an extinct non-human race. The inscription describes an elaborate ritual of summoning, but with no hint as to the nature of the entity being summoned. The two sorcerers perform the ritual, and nothing happens ... then. Months later, the unearthly entity arrives in its own time and fashion.
"And climbing the white stairs in the low, level beams of the crag-caught moon, I saw a figure that awaited me in the portals. And I knew by the trailing robe of sea-purple, but by no other token, that the figure was Avyctes. For the face was no longer in its entirety the face of man, but was become a loathly fluid amalgam of human features with a thing not to be identified on earth." (from "The Return Of The Sorcerer: The Best Of Clark Ashton Smith," Wildside Press, 2007).
I could continue, but I'd end up with a book. Read these aloud or silently, and enjoy.