I’m delighted to welcome back author Luke Walker. He has previously written several fascinating essays for this blog, including The Best of British Horror, Favorite Female Characters in Horror, Taboos in Horror, Here There Be Zombies, and Females in Horror: Victims or Survivors? (Hmm, I wonder if we’ll be seeing a collection of essays from Luke any time soon?)
Being that he has just released a collection of horror short stories, it is only fitting that I invited him to tell us about his favorite short form horror yarns. Take it away, Luke!
Coming up with a list of horror short stories has proved trickier than I expected. Should I break it down by time period or author or type of horror (Gothic, psychological, contemporary, atmospheric, fantastical) or just go for an all-out everyone from all backgrounds and all styles type thing? Then, of course, do I go for the best horror stories or personal favourites? We could be here all day, going through the variations of a list like this. In the end, I went for a few of my own favourites—the stories that have stayed with me for years and (perhaps) influenced my own short fiction.
Poe: THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO. When I began thinking of what tales I’d list for this post, the one that came to mind first was Poe’s story of revenge and a wine-cellar. I read it when I was nine or ten, and while a lot of the language and style was obviously alien to me, the crap yourself terror of realising that no, he’s not going to stop bricking up the wall hit me like a punch in the face and has stayed with me ever since.
The basic plot concerns two noblemen, Montresor and Fortunato, in nineteenth century Italy. Montresor, insulted by Fortunato and not one to laugh it off, promises the man a rare Amontillado which is underground in the catacombs. Fortunato, drunk out of his brain, doesn’t realise things aren’t going according to plan, but sobers up sharpish when Montresor chains him to the wall and begins bricking up the wall.
I think what stuck with me is the slow death involved here. It’s one thing to be killed, but to die slowly and know you’re being killed takes the horror to a new, terrible level.
HP Lovecraft: DAGON. Possibly not one of Lovecraft’s most famous stories, but one I’m especially fond of as it’s the very first of the master’s I read. My eldest brother had a collection of Lovecraft’s work (a collection I ‘borrowed’ when he left home and have long since lost, sadly). Dagon was the first story in the book and quite a short one. Along with Poe, I read this when I was nine or so and loved it. The unnamed narrator; the sense of the huge middle of nowhere Pacific Ocean; the man’s terror of being lost at sea, then encountering a damp, black piece of land most probably from the ocean floor. . .before finding examples of an ancient culture that worshipped a fish-god and then realising that perhaps the god isn’t dead after all.
The strangeness of the horror is what makes it work—as it often does in Lovecraft’s work. This isn’t horror of the known world. It’s outside our world and utterly alien.
Shirley Jackson: THE LOTTERY. Well, what can be said about this other than it’s one of the best examples of short horror fiction ever written? The Lottery is a hard tale to discuss without giving away the obvious (although, to be fair, it’s clear more or less from the start where it’s going), so all I’ll say is read it and have it stick with you. Because it will.
Neil Gaiman: CHIVALRY. Not a horror story, but one I had to include here. Gaiman has a light touch in much of his fiction. A lot of writers, given the situation of the plot, would get bogged in down in why. Gaiman is more interested in what, and the what is simple: an old lady finds the Holy Grail in a charity shop. Then one of King Arthur’s Knights comes looking for it.
Chivalry is a superb and simple story that can be enjoyed by anyone whether or not they like uncanny fiction.
William Hope Hodgson: THE DERELICT. A new one for me even though it was published a hundred years ago. It has a ‘story within a story’ frame (a device I’ve always liked); the narrator recounts the tale of a ship he was on several years earlier which encountered another ship—the derelict of the title. A few crew members board the empty vessel to discover a gelatinous substance covering everything, a substance with obvious sentience, intelligence and hunger.
It’s a surprising narrative simply because changing a few of the background details would mean it could be told a century ago, fifty years ago or today. I daresay if I tried something like this, I’d up the gore which would probably be a mistake. The horror works on its own terms and the story is well worth checking out if you don’t know it.
Gary McMahon: WHY GHOSTS WAIL: A BRIEF MEMOIR. I really struggled with narrowing down my choices when it came to McMahon’s short fiction simply because this guy is good. And I do mean good. This particular piece from his collection How To Make Monsters is a highly effective (and highly depressing) piece that tells you why ghosts, when seen, are never happy or content—it’s because they know what we don’t and what we don’t want to know: how things will go for the living. They know the accidents and disease and misery waiting for us and there’s nothing to be done except wait for these horrors to come to pass. Grim stuff, but done so well.
Daphne du Maurier: THE BIRDS. I read The Birds long after I first watched Hitchcock’s film. As great as the film obviously is, the original story has the edge for me if for nothing else than (spoilers) the ending which is bleaker than the film.
We all know the basic tale: birds begin attacking humankind for no clear reason. On the surface, it’s a slightly silly idea. After all, birds are small and not dangerous in the way, say, a dog or even a cat can be. But what happens when the birds just keep on coming? What happens when you realise how many birds are nearby at any one time? What happens when you realise the attack is not local; it’s national and perhaps goes even further?
The Birds is one of those a it’s bad to start with and it’s getting worse stories that doesn’t explain everything or offer much hope. Probably why I like it so much.
Stephen King: CROUCH END. Having two stories by the same author in this list might seem a bit of a cheat, but we’re talking about Stephen King here, so I think we can bend the rules. In any case, Crouch End is one of my absolute favourite stories by King or anyone for that matter. An American couple, Leonard and Doris, are in London for a work thing and head to the suburb of Crouch End to have dinner with a colleague but as this is a King horror story, things go wrong quickly. Neither are sure where they are or where they should be going; the area is mostly deserted and the few people around are not friendly. It all becomes Lovecraftian and progresses to the point of a certain black goat with a thousand young making an appearance.
King has always been an expert at nailing characters within a few lines, and Crouch End is no exception. Doris’s growing terror is superbly detailed, and the atmosphere is creepy enough from the get-go to keep up a sense of brr all the way through.
Stephen King: ONE FOR THE ROAD. One of King’s older stories, this was a sequel of sorts to his novel ’Salem’s Lot, and one that I have to admit being an influence on a couple of the stories in my collection Die Laughing. It takes place in a town not far from the Lot after the climax of the book (spoilers) results in the town being burned out by one of the very few survivors. The trouble is not all of the vampires are dead. Enough survive for the nearby residents to know they don’t go into the Lot and they definitely don’t go there after dark. When a man’s car breaks down in the middle of a winter blizzard, the owner of a bar and one of his friends are the only two people available to help search for the man’s missing wife and daughter—a matter not helped by the family breaking down on the road that heads straight into ’Salem’s Lot.
What works for me here is that the two men, bar owner Herb and his friend Booth, are both older guys who want nothing more than a few drinks by the fire. Rescuing a woman and her daughter from a blizzard is one thing; going up against the Undead is another. That fact that the men do is one of the great examples of why horror matters. Because even when we’re scared out of our minds, we still try to do what’s right.
So, that’s my little list of a few great horror stories. I could fill pages and pages of other tales, but for now, I’ll leave it here and hope you enjoy my recommendations.
Maybe in a quiet house with the lights down low. . .and the doors locked.
A monster from Portuguese folklore crosses countries and oceans to hunt the child who escaped it years ago. The dead rise throughout Britain, leading a teenaged boy into a decision which will be either the easiest or hardest of his life. In a pleasant suburbia, a young couple find a link full of terrible possibilities between their new home and Jack the Ripper’s horrendous crimes. Three friends lost on a hiking weekend in the Pennines discover the way home means facing a monstrous god from the freezing void beyond the world. In the near future, anti-social behaviour isn’t met with anger or complaint. It’s met with a gun. And after a voyeur bulldozes her privacy on the daily commute, a young woman fights back, leading to bloody consequences.
In these stories and more, you are invited to face the cold horrors of restless spirits and the ugly reality of future nightmares. You are invited to look them in eye and make your choice. Will you die laughing or live screaming?