I’ve got a little list, of five of my favorite horror short stories. These ones have been chosen because they’ve stuck with me over the course of many years now. I’m sure there’s recent ones bubbling under that’ll be on this list in years to come.
But for now, here’s my best of the best.
Mackintosh Willy by Ramsey Campbell
My first reading of Mackintosh Willy was in the Dark Companions collection, sometime in the late ’80s. I wasn’t a writer then – I was newly divorced, living in London and mostly drunk. But there was something that crept in that story, something about the urban decay, hopelessness and the way we treat the other that rang a bell with me, and I found myself thinking about it more and more over the next few years. My personal circumstances improved, I got remarried, escaped London…but Ramsey’s story stuck with me, and when I started writing for myself in the early ’90s, some of Ramsey came along with me, for which I’ll always be grateful.
Sredni Vashtar by Saki (Hector Hugh Munro)
I first read this when I was a boy of similar age to the protagonist Conradin, which makes it round about 1968, and it must have been one of the first true horror stories I ever read.
It’s a slow burner, about a child in an unfriendly situation, and how he escapes into a fantasy world of his own making, creating a cult and a religion around his pet ferret, Sredni Vashtar, which is built up in his mind as an all powerful force of destruction. And then the pet is discovered by the unfriendly family.
If you’ve never read it, I won’t spoil it, but it is a delicious tale, the likes of which Roald Dahl would perfect later, but this one, my first of the kind, has always stuck with me and still does to this day, almost 50 years on.
Sticks by Karl Edward Wagner
If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.
Sticks is Karl Edward Wagner’s homage to the weird tradition, and has been collected several times since it first appeared in Whispers back in the early ’70s. It’s also, purportedly, based on a true story of illustrator Lee Brown Coye’s experiences in 1938 in a farmhouse in the Mann Brook region. I didn’t know that when I first read it, in the Arkham House reprint of the Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos anthology, and even if I had, it couldn’t have made the impact of the tale any stronger than it was already.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m a country lad and spent a lot of my time rambling in woodland and playing with sticks myself, but something in this story crept into me and stayed there. I was reminded of it strongly in The Blair Witch Project, and that made the movie even more creepy for me, but the story itself, simple enough as it is in plot, has depth and heft and a capacity to make you look over your shoulder to make sure you’re not being watched. It still strikes a chord today, even after repeated readings. It’s the kind of story I aspire to write, and reminds me, in a way, of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, or Machen’s The White People. It’s in good company, and deserves to be.
Smoke Ghost by Fritz Leiber
Another one that’s been with me for an awful long time. In the early ’70s, I was reading Leiber mainly for his science fiction, but stumbled upon a collection that contained this, and was immediately unnerved. Smoke Ghost, written in 1941, was an early attempt to bring ghosts into the modern age, and it works perfectly.
There is a thing here haunting city alleys, roofs and railway lines, a thing of tattered cloth, old newpapers, oil and smoke, a thing of the city’s dispossessed and lost, that is as effective a haunting as anything ever put down on paper, and all the more scary for its modernist trappings. If I’m ever pressed for my favorite short horror story, this is the one that usually first comes to mind, for that thing of scraps and oil haunts me yet, and I’ve met it in my dreams.
Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier
It’s a masterful feat of storytelling, building from an almost comical, married Brits abroad start to quickly pile on subtle, then not-so-subtle hints that things are not all that they seem. Our protagonist’s journey from concerned husband and his pent up grief at the loss of a child builds into something dark and strange, as if the foreign city itself is conspiring against him.
The final scene, where he faces his grief, and finds the truth, is as shocking in print as it is in film, and that’s a testament to the descriptive and narrative powers of De Maurier.
It’s one of my favorite things, both in print and in film, and I wish I could see, and read, both for the first time all over again.
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