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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Scary story recommendations

My post on Lovecraft a few days ago sparked a couple of interesting discussions about the topic of scary stories in general, and I thought I'd write a few recommendations for some of my favorite Tales of the Supernatural.  I'll be curious to see what my readers think -- and to hear what their favorites are.  Always looking for new stories to read...

I have fairly definite opinions about reading material (okay, to be truthful, I have fairly definite opinions about most things).  To me, a good horror story is one that is evocative, in which there is a subtle touch – the imagination, I find, is far more powerful than the written word in creating frightening imagery.  It's as scary, often, to leave the door closed and let the reader spend the rest of his life speculating about what was behind it than it is to actually open the door and reveal the monster.

This is why gruesome stories really don't do much for me.  A story about a murderer with a chainsaw might disgust me, it might incite me to check to see if my doors are securely locked, but it doesn't give me that thrill of fear up the backbone that is what I'm looking for in a good spooky story, what the Scots call "the cauld grue."  Sheer human perversity doesn't fill the bill; there has to be some sort of supernatural element, to me, for a story to really cross the line into the terrifying.  Reading about homicidal maniacs simply is neither very appealing nor very scary (however scary actually meeting one would be).

All this is rather funny, because (as I've described before), I don't actually believe in the supernatural, and I obviously do believe in the existence of homicidal maniacs.  The fact that something that doesn't exist can scare me far worse than something dangerous that does exist is probably just evidence that I'm not as highly evolved in the logic department as I often claim to be.

In any case, if you're curious, here are my top ten choices for the scariest stories of all time. Let's  hear what you think -- if you agree, disagree, or if you were prompted to find and read any of these.  Could make for an interesting discussion!

These are in no particular order, and there are no spoilers -- just a brief idea of what the plot is.

"What Was It?" by FitzJames O'Brien.  A house is haunted by a real, corporeal creature that also happens to be invisible.  And insane.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.  What would you do if you were the last human alive on earth -- because everyone else had become a vampire?  Don't watch the movie -- read the book!

"The Mirror" by Haruki Murakami.  If I had to vote for the single best-crafted short story I've ever read, this would be a strong contender.  A group of friends gets together for an evening of drinking and chatting, and someone notices that the host's apartment has no mirrors, and asks why.  Reluctantly, he explains.  You'll see why he was reluctant...

The Shining by Stephen King. Once again, skip the movie and read the book. You'll never look at a bathtub, or an old-fashioned elevator, or a long hotel hallway the same way again.

"Oh, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad" by M. R. James. A regrettably little-known story which is one of the eeriest things I've ever read.  A British tourist finds an antique whistle half-buried in the sand on the beach, and blows it.  He shouldn't have.

"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs.  The classic example of not opening the door.

"Afterward" by Edith Wharton.  If this story doesn't scare the absolute shit out of you, you're made of stone.  A story about... a retroactive haunting?

"The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson.  Not a supernatural thriller, as per my original description (so sue me).  But still a classic of horror fiction.

"August Heat" by William Fryer Harvey.  What if you happened upon a stranger, a maker of marble monuments, and he was making a headstone -- with your name, and today's date, on it?

"Ligeia" by Edgar Allan Poe.  One of the earliest stories of possession.

So, those are my top ten.  Agree?  Disagree?  Any additional that you would recommend?  What stories have chilled your blood, that would be appropriate to sit in front of the fire with, late at night, when no one is awake in the house but you?


  1. The Beast with Five Fingers still scares me. I bought an audio cd of it and some others for using with advanced students and I can't bring myself to listen to it yet.
    Silence of the Lambs had me checking doors and whatnot.
    Despite the fact that I do believe in certain supernatural things, I don't find ghost stories as such scare me. Tales of human evilness do. odd.

  2. Nice to see 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You My Lad' getting some recognition. I first encountered it when I was eight and it still scares me silly. What I love about James is they way his characters will look once or open the door, if only for a second. Then there is silence. Brrr.

    I agree, in the main, with your overview of what makes fear. However, I would put in a word for the terrifying potential of sheer, inexplicable malice and cruelty, though. Whilst it didn't have me checking over my shoulder and hiding under the bedclothes, Lovecraft's 'The Rats in the Walls' had me heaving every time I tried to eat for days, and stories that really get inside a warped mindspace can be very effective. After all, if you combine that with tension, the supernatural and the barely glimpsed, then you get 'Woman in Black'.