Our special guest this week is horror author Adam Nevill, whose terrific novels have been giving us nightmares all year - especially his latest, The Ritual. (Also, want a spoiler for Solaris' upcoming House of Fear anthology? Mr. Nevill's "Florrie" is terrifying.)
From listening to him speak on panels, Mr. Nevill's also a man that knows and loves his horror, making him our first (spooky) port of (terrifying) call when it came to rooting around for vintage scares.
The only rule was the short story needed to be pre-WW2, but, as you can see, some of us reached much further back in our lists. What stories kept you up all night? Scare us in the comments.
"The Beckoning Fair One" by Oliver Onions (1911). Like Machen's "White People", and Maupassant's "Le Horla", this really showed how horror could reach ahead of its time in style and scope into what feels like modernism. It's an extraordinary ghost story, in terms of how its written, and how it reveals the inner life of a character going mad, or being haunted and bewitched, that you never quite escape from. I also adapted this into a short film that no one has ever seen beyond the crew. Where can I send it?
You can get this for two quid from Wordsworth Classics.
"Miss Mary Pask" by Edith Wharton (1926). Almost as a universal rule, I dislike stories that purport to have a supernatural premise, but actually go a bit Scooby Doo with a rational explanation at the end. Can't see the point of them and feel short changed enough to get angry. With one exception: this story. It's magnificently eerie and disturbing and sad, and I'd say the fate of the character, that you are convinced is a ghost, is probably worse than her actually being a ghost. The horror is somehow greater without the supernatural. She was a masterly writer. You can also get this for two quid from Wordsworth Classics.
"Wailing Well" by M. R. James (1927). As a child, nothing frightened me as much as the revelation of the spectres around the well. I used to think I could see them on hills waving at me for years afterwards. I became quite obsessed with M. R. James' stories as a child. You can also get this for two quid from Wordsworth Classics.
"The Clock" by W. F. Harvey (1928). Again, I read this one as a boy and it terrified me. I reread it again this year and still thought it sublime. It's very short - about five pages long - but is a perfect ghost story. The narrator actually sees nothing in a very sinister little house, in which he has been sent to find a clock, but he is forced to leap from an upstairs window by the sound of something that sounds like a bird hopping on the staircase outside - something rising toward the room he is trapped in. Ditto re you can get this for two quid from Wordsworth Classics.
"He Cometh and He Passeth" by H. R. Wakefield (1928). At his best, I think Wakefield is as good, or nearly as good, as M. R. James; of whom he was also a great admirer. This story is Wakefield's take on James's "Casting The Runes", and also features a character, I suspect, is based on Aleister Crowley. My favourite Wakefield story is actually "Immortal Bird", which still makes me stare into space, but I think that was written after your WW2 deadline. He's been criminally neglected by the mainstream, and I cannot understand why. His stories are genuinely frightening and disturbing and probably more accessible to the modern ear in terms of idiom than M. R. James, and the other James, who never lack popularity (only thing I'd take out of his stories are the exclamation marks!) His suggestive evocations of the supernatural are as good as anything in the field, and the creatures are just ghastly. His Dad was also the Bishop of Birmingham, my home town, so I also have a geographical bias. Why no Wordsworth classic? Still in copyright perhaps? The John Murray edition of Best Ghost Stories should take priority over buying food in anyone's budget.
I set myself a no-Lovecraft, no-Howard rule for this as I already talk about them both all the damn time.
Robert Chambers' "The Repairer of Reputations" (1895) is my favorite story from one of my favorite authors. The story takes place in an oddly-sinister projection of 1920, it features a proper, old-school descent into madness and it even sets up the lingering "did it happen?/didn't it happen?" dichotomy that's the hallmark of a great Weird tale. There's also a mad cat, lost armor (one of the author's pet hobbies), a love triangle, and the first introduction of the great mythic play itself, "The King in Yellow".
Arthur Machen's "The Bowmen" (1914). I find everything around "The Bowmen" to be fascinating. Arthur Machen penned this story for The Evening News who carelessly didn't demarcate it as fiction. Soon, other "sightings" were recorded and tales of the "Angels of Mons" began to emerge from every quarter. Eventually, Mr. Machen collected "The Bowmen" into a book (it has a 21 page introduction to a 10 page story) - partially because it was so insanely popular, but also to stop the hoax from perpetuating any further.
Algernon Blackwood's "Ancient Sorceries" (1908). A slightly frivolous pick next to his other works but I think "Ancient Sorceries" consciously takes a less somber approach. Vezin, a nebbish middle-aged man, recounts his visit to a village of cat people. Mr. Blackwood lovingly describes the feline theme of the town - 'they move obliquely'. At the end of his tale, Vezin understands that, however wrong the village was, he'll never do - or be - anything half as interesting again.
F. Marion Crawford's "The Upper Berth" (1894). Even now, this story scares the shit out of me. When I read it as a child (in one of those "A Hundred Tales to Make Your Child Wet the Bed until He's 40!" anthologies), it turned me off bunk beds for life.
William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" (1932). Mr. Faulker's first published work is everything that Southern Gothic should be. It is unsettling, atmospheric, leisurely and, above all, subtle. Just as HP Lovecraft spun horror off in one unsettling direction by focusing externally and on the inhuman, Mr. Faulker's story is evidence that's there's still plenty scary left on the inside as well.
All my scary stories could easily come from Lovecraft, since the few things I've ever read that have kept me awake at night have mostly come from him. But I'll restrain myself.
"The Colour out of Space" (1927). My absolute favorite Lovecraft, and one of my favorite short stories of all time. If not the favorite. Colour features everything that really wigs me out: an inexplicable and uncaring phenomena (the "colour"), a normal family's gradual descent into madness, and some fucking creepy effects (the trees that sway on windless nights; the slow decay of organic matter). It's gross without being gorey and there's nothing anyone can do to fight it; the evil just is. And it's going to get us all, in the end.
The Black Dog of Newgate. This one's a cheat, being an urban legend, but it's still one of my favorites. The faithful hound of a prisoner at Newgate is said to have starved to death outside the walls of the infamous prison while its master awaited his date with the hangman inside. From then on, prisoners, guards and visitors would occasionally see a black form slithering along the walls of the prison, a sight that always foretold death. Newgate itself is long gone, but one wall remains, at the back of Amen Court by St. Paul's Cathedral. (For best effect, visit at dusk; Amen Court boasts a couple other ghosts, too.)
"The Wendigo" (1981), the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark version. It's this particular retelling of the Wendigo myth that haunted my prepubescent imagination - the isolation, the terror, the footsteps that get further and further apart before they finally disappear entirely. Say it with me now: "my feet, my feet... my burning feet of fire."
"Quality", by John Galsworthy (1912). This is a weird one. It's not a true ghost story, but I first read it in the "Ghosts" volume of The World's 100 Best Short Stories. It stuck with me both as an example of an editor's liberal interpretation of a theme and because it's terribly, terribly sad. An old man is the best boot-maker in London, perhaps the world. The problem is, his boots are so well made that one simply doesn't have to buy another pair for years. And the more desperate the bootmaker's situation, the more clients he loses, the better the quality of the boots he turns out.
"The Man with the Copper Fingers", by Dorothy L. Sayers (1928). I was nine the rainy evening my dad handed me this story to read, and I never forgot it. An artist, known for his electroplated statues, begins to suspect his wife is cheating on him. I won't spoil the ending for you, (I'll bet you can guess!) but let me assure you that it haunted the ever-living crap out of me.
So what keeps you up at night (in a pre-WW2 short story kind of way)?