With Halloween looming, these tales by authors from Shirley Jackson to Stephen King are guaranteed to keep you awake as the nights close in
In the foreword to his anthology Skeleton Crew, Stephen King launched a memorable defence of the horror short story. No, they weren’t failed novels. Neither were they ideas he couldn’t bring himself to bin. Comparing a novel to a long affair, he saw the short story as a “quick kiss in the dark with a stranger … but those kisses can be sweet”.
He is right, of course. Some of literature’s most enduring nightmares are short-form. MR James never wrote a novel. Neither did HP Lovecraft . I would argue that their enduring appeal is also ingrained in our childhood: they’re the bedtime story, the vicious Grimms’ fairytale, the ghost story shared around a crackling campfire.
Along with the Pan horror anthologies I inhaled as a kid, it was those memories I tried to recapture when I wrote my own collection, Silverweed Road . Set on a cursed suburban street, the horrors lurking behind each door unlock tales of were-foxes, predatory swimming pools, vengeful urns and a darts player’s pact with the devil.
While all of the stories interlink to form a weird horror ecosystem, I was never chasing a sustained chill. What I was after was that brief, pleasing trickle of fear only a short story can deliver: what I like to call the pleasure shiver. As the sun sinks, the nights close in and spooky season creeps ever closer, what better time to experience a pleasure shiver or 10?
Horror is a many-tentacled beast. From phantom staircases to sinister taxidermists, here are some favourites – but I readily admit to some painful omissions (no Poe, no Kafka, no Blackwood, I could go on) so I eagerly await your comments.
1. The Tower by Marghanita Laski
On a stifling tour of Florence, newlywed Caroline breaks free from her controlling husband to explore the Italian countryside. Beyond a dusty track, on a distant hill, a stone tower beckons … As Caroline journeys up its spiral staircase – counting each step, relishing her freedom – the walls close in on her impossible ascent. Or is it descent? While the phallic tower as a patriarchal totem feels a little obvious, what Laski recounts in sparse prose is anything but: the horror is abstract, the fear suffocating, and Caroline’s fate lurks long in the mind. By the end, you’ll be gripping the page like a rusty handrail. Laski was best known as a vinegary literary critic. The Tower was a rare foray into horror. I wish she had written more.
In the Bag by Ramsey Campbell
“The boy’s faced struggled within the plastic bag … His eyes were grey blank holes, full of fog beneath the plastic.” So begins the haunting of Clarke – a militant headmaster who feels no guilt for suffocating his playmate during a childhood prank, long ago yet not forgotten … There is something distinctly, darkly Nabokovian about Campbell’s fiction: a shared obsession with the enigma of memory, and how we cope with it. In the Bag is a masterful example: his blurring of past trauma with the supernatural is the literary equivalent of knitting fog. Clarke’s cruel fate is exceptionally nasty. Like all great horror stories, it ends with a gasp.
3. Survivor Type by Stephen King
Of King’s 200-plus stories, I always come back to this one. Offering a day-by-day narrative drive, the diary is perfect for short stories. In Survivor Type, disgraced surgeon turned drug smuggler Richard Pine finds himself marooned on a barren island. As he awaits rescue, entries in his lifeboat logbook pass the time. Nobody comes. There’s nothing to eat. He sharpens a knife and looks at his leg … Oh boy. No ghosts, aliens, or killer clowns. Just auto-cannibalism and stark human horror. King at his most transgressive, and best consumed on an empty stomach.
4. The Landlady by Roald Dahl
Poor Billy Weaver. Just turned 17, sent to Bath on a work trip, lost, tired and with nowhere to stay. A cheap B&B and a smiling old landlady offer salvation. And she must be nice because she has pets … Dahl’s unflashy prose is his secret weapon. The simple style disarms you, only before Dahl plunges in the knife. I won’t ruin the twist but the foreshadowing is exquisitely devious. The silent dachshund by the fire. The guest book with only two names. The landlady praising Billy’s beautiful teeth. Dahl wrote The Landlady as a ghost story, scowled at it, then changed the ending. Wise move.
5. The Forbidden by Clive Barker
When Books of Blood was unleashed in 1984, Stephen King said: “I have seen the future of horror – and his name is Clive Barker .” With six volumes and 30 stories, what do I pick? The man-made giants of In the Hills, the Cities? The Body Politic’s army of skittering hands? The demonic slapstick of The Yattering and Jack? To hell with it: let’s go with The Forbidden. Candyman is a fine Hollywood adaptation, but in relocating it sacrifices the cold, wintry dread of Barker’s Spector Street Estate: a graffiti-ravaged brutalist pit of social-realist despair where its urban legend looms.
6. Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad by MR James
Quintessential James. A callow academic unearths an artefact (a bronze whistle on a shingle beach). An ancient, unknowable force is unleashed (in a two-bed room at the Globe Inn). The subtly uncoiling doom is very Jamesian: a white figure glimpsed in a window, a freshly made bed, mysteriously twisted. Oh, Whistle’s final reveal of “a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen” left me petrified the first time I read it, and my battered copy of his Collected Ghost Stories suggests I’m a glutton for punishment.
7. The October Game by Ray Bradbury
Halloween. A suburban house. Mich shuts the gun back in the drawer. Too fast. Too neat. He wants his wife Louise to suffer … From The Veldt to Free Dirt, Bradbury was a master of creepy slow-burners, but he really reached into the abyss for this one. Gouged out in 1948, The October Game’s portrait of a sadistic spouse remains shocking. When Mich invites his wife, daughter and neighbours to play “the witch game” in their pitch-black cellar, Bradbury’s maxim of “hint, don’t show” hits full-force. Dread mingles with the sound of children’s laughter. You daren’t look. Then the cellar lights flash on. At which point, Bradbury abandons you, leaving you alone to your squirming imagination.
8. The Dunwich Horror by HP Lovecraft
To the domed hills of Arkham and an unseen entity, growing in a farmhouse fit to burst. Reducing mankind to an insignificant speck in a malignant universe of cosmic gods, Lovecraft is a sub-genre unto himself, and Dunwich is practically Lovecraft bingo: there are rituals, tentacles, summonings, the Necronomicon, ineffable evils and, in mutant Wilbur Whateley, his greatest character. No matter how many times I’ve read the description of his dog-mauled corpse, I still fan my armpits in feverish confusion (“The goatish, chinless face … coarse black fur … tentacles with red sucking mouths … on each of the hips, deep set in a pinkish ciliated orbit, was what seemed to be a rudimentary eye”). Some find Lovecraft’s decadent prose a turn-off. I’d say it’s key to the madness.
9. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
In The Haunting of Hill House, the incomparable Shirley Jackson delivered horror lit’s scariest line (“God! Whose hand was I holding?”). The Lottery is, for my money, her most terrifying vision of all. It’s a bright, blooming summer’s day in a bucolic village. Laughing children play with stones as the villagers gather around a box. Old Man Warner speaks: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon …” There are no winners in Jackson’s chilling parable of blind faith. Every interpretation – be it organised religion, capital punishment, mob rule – remains both valid and depressingly timeless. Ironically, Jackson weathered a truly frightening aftermath post-publication: hate mail by the sack-load, as viciously unthinking as The Lottery’s villagers.
The Horla by Guy de Maupassant
Featuring a vaporous vampiric entity whose persistent, ever-watchful presence drives its genteel protagonist into madness, it was actually a Frenchman who popularised the malevolent, bump-in-the-night, kneel-on-your-chest ghost story. The climax is ruthless but The Horla’s lasting power is in its understanding that terror comes from the unknown and unglimpsed, and went on to inspire Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.