Top Ten Horror Stories for the Halloween Season on an Ascending Scale of Ghoulishness
Number 10: “The Lady of the House of Love” by Angela Carter from The Bloody Chamber
Carter’s gory, proto-feminist treatment of the Sleeping Beauty legend is one of her most successful from the thusly-themed short story collection, The Bloody Chamber. And here’s the twist: Sleeping Beauty is a vampire—no, cancel that, the Queen of the Vampires, and is desirous of a Prince Charming of the WWI soldier variety to dine at her table tonight…or be dined on. The writing is as gorgeous as anything by Carter, and in high-Baroque, neo-Victorian prose that both befits and breathes new death into its fusty subject matter.
Number 9: “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe from Tales of Mystery and Imagination
What list of scary stories would be complete without an offering from the scribe who started it all, and to who all of the authors to come, not to mention the previous—Carter has a story called “The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe”—have in some way paid tribute. Perhaps one of Poe’s most enigmatic stories, but also one of his most representative, “The Fall of the House of Usher” has pretty much got it all: a cliffside manor, a wastrel youth, a premature burial, a howling storm, incestuous doppelgangers, and a force of nature—or is it?—that one can only liken to the yawing portal that swallows the demons at the end of Evil Dead. Of all the stories on this list, if you can manage to read this one in the midst of inclement weather not only will you feel what the characters do in the story’s banshee of a climax, but you can sit for a while with book on your lap, staring out into the tempest as you ponder its meaning.
Number 8: “Good Country People” by Flannery O’ Connor from A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories
Typically, when you mention Flannery O’Connor, people attest to having read “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and another one, which the person in question can’t ever seem to remember, but attempts to describe in some oblique way along the lines of, “It’s about this weird yokel preacher with a fetish for…;” but to recount that reference in full would be a spoiler, so let’s just say, yes, it’s that story. One of O’Connor’s longest, bizarrest, and best, “Good Country People” charts the relations, and irrelations among a highly educated one-legged girl, her snobbish and hypocritical mother, an itinerant bible salesman, and a proud hired hand. Although it might not raise the goose-bumps immediately, as some of her other tales are sure to do, O’Connor’s fable of manners sticks to you with the festering tenacity of any good scary story. You’ll be likely to find it, weeks from now, lodged at the base of your skull.
Number 7: “A Tree of Night” by Truman Capote from The Grass Harp and Other Stories
This brief, early offering from the author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s is no more than the story of a girl on a train. Yet when she encounters two vaudevillian strangers, who, like the best of our Southern Grotesques, are transfigured by their ugliness into something else entirely, she must journey to a long-forgotten part of herself that most of us are afraid to acknowledge. Cerebrally unsettling, with an ether-dream lucidity, Capote’s tale of the uncanny, and his most successful foray into Southern Gothic, is sure to send a fleet of shivers from the base of your spin to the top of your skull.
Number 6: “The Installation” by Brian Evenson from The Wavering Knife
A slow-burn marvel of unreliable first-person narration and a post-modern experiment all in one, the closer of Brian Evenson’s second collection of tales will make you laugh and squirm in equal measure. The exoneration-cum-confession of a Damien-Hurst/Kiki-Smith-esque maestro is delivered by sleight of hand as he describes his plans for a ghoulish photography installation. But the more ardently he attempts to justify his unorthodox process in the name of art, the creepier he and his so-called art become. By the time you finally reach the story’s end, you will curse yourself not only for having imagined you could believe his lies, but also that you, like his unsuspecting victim, find him as eminently charming as you are sure to.
Number 5: “The Whisperer in the Darkness” by H.P. Lovecraft
Ideal for those who savor Lovecraft’s prolixity, and those yearning for him to take it down a notch so that they can actually get their minds around whatever unreckonable abomination emerged from the stygian nether-regions of the abyss’ (note: not a quote) that he happens to be describing. This curious mixture of rural and extraterrestrial terror, which marks one of the first in Lovecraft’s “Chtulu mythos,” is also one of Brian Evenson’s favorites, so you know it has got to be somewhat sly. A long, tense epistolary set-up, in which vicious crustaceans besiege a tinker’s house in the wilds of New England, gives way to a trail of breadcrumbs and then revelations on the narrator’s part that rival E.T.A Hoffman in their uncanny-ness, and Burrough’s in their bizarreness.
Number 4: “The Minister’s Black Veil” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Understated horror of a theological stripe haunts a small Massachusetts-Bay-Colony-town in what is doubtless the spookiest of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous Twice-Told Tales. When parishioners begin to fear and eventually shun altogether the crepe-enshrouded visage of their local minister, they are brought into an unadulterated confrontation with the most elusive monstrosity of all: themselves. Hearken ye, o, fans of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor, and bear ye witness as Hawthorne probes the outer dark of provincial nastiness and human complicity.
Number 3: “The Bees” by Dan Chaon from McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2003) edited by Michael Chabon
Certainly the scariest yarn in McSweeney’s flagship compendium of the “adventure story” revitalized, Dan Chaon’s “The Bees” is the perfect synthesis of the unapologetic genre story and the over-apologetic Richard-Ford-esque epiphanal story. In examining the seemingly typical anxieties of a thirty-something family man, Chaon manages to subvert banality by mapping the topography of terror and regret with a skillful disquiet that recalls Stanley Kubrick at his best. And yes, there are genuinely poignant slices of life thrown in there, too, for all you so-called “human beings.” A twice-married ex-alcoholic leads a double-life of the mind with disastrous consequences for his new wife and son in this, literally, hackle-raising tale of fatherhood, night terrors, and cerebral abnormality.
Number 2: “The Paperhanger” by William Gay from I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down: Stories
William Gay’s laconic yet lyrical 2002 story “The Paperhanger”—one of many highlights of 2004′s The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus—it a mite more than textbook Southern Gothic, as recent investitures of the author as Faulkner’s grandson (McCarthy being the son) have seemed to suggest. Indeed, in “The Paperhanger,” Gay has more in common with the would-be antecedents of Angela Carter’s #10 than he does with either Faulkner or McCarthy, though the cadence of his words does sound eerily similar to both, at times. “The Paperhanger,” among others things, is a story about class warfare, perversion, solitude, and the caprices of fate, with the subverted fairy-tale narrative of a young Pakistani girl’s mysterious disappearance in broad daylight driving through the center of it. A blue-collar loner with pale eyes and a penchant for deranged archaeology haunts the site of a tragedy in this literary chiller from below the Mason-Dixon line.
Number 1: “Don’t Look Now” by Daphne DuMaurier from NYRB’s Don’t Look Now: The Selected Stories of Daphne DuMaurier
Even if you haven’t seen Nicholas Roeg’s uncannily faithful 1974 film adaptation featuring the laborious, grief-addled sex-scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, this psycho-plasmatic shocker of a story from DuMaurier, the author of Rebecca and the short story on which Alfred Hitchcock’s film “The Birds” is based, is an exercise in the horror of randomness and coincidence. As if losing your only daughter in a freak drowning accident, taking a strained vacation to Venice in the midst of a serial murder spree, and being dogged by the predictions of two genteel clairvoyants weren’t enough already for the hapless pair at the center of DuMaurier’s tale. But then you read the ending, and not only are the macabre events of the beginning cast into high, forehead-slapping relief, but the world beyond the story—the world that you enter, finally, after turning the last page—becomes forever unpredictable, forever transformed.
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