The 31st is almost upon us again. Sure, it may be too late to dash through that horror novel that you’ve been meaning to read, but it’s not too late to experience a good story. In the spirit of the holiday, here are a few horror and Halloween stories I have enjoyed:
“The Haunted House,” by Pliny the Younger
Pliny’s story isn’t scary or horrific, but it’s worth looking into because of its artistic and historic merit. It dates from the first century A.D./C.E., and it shows some common horror tropes that were present even at that time, such as rattling chains, vanishing ghosts, and disembodied moaning. The whole thing is pretty short, and it shows that a writer can still create an interesting and (somewhat) compelling “horror” story in a small space.
“The Events at Poroth Farm,” by T. E. D. Klein
When I first read this story, I was alone in the middle of the night, sitting in a quiet, ground-floor dormitory room with a window that opened directly onto the sidewalk. In the end, I barely decided against sleeping with the lights on that night. That’s because Klein perfectly captures the tension behind the horror genre, tracing the protagonist’s experience with mysterious events on an isolated farm. Things get even more intense when he finds an axe buried in his pillow and when the unseen forces start to manifest themselves. The climax is even more chilling than I had imagined, making this a great story all-around.
“The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Edgar Allen Poe
This story is almost a must-read for Halloween. Not only is it a classic, but it’s also full of suspense and madness, with a terrible crime thrown in for good measure. The protagonist tries to convince us that he’s perfectly sane as we watch him lose his mind and struggle with the consequences of his actions. Altogether, Poe gives a great exploration of the human mind while creating a fantastic piece of horror to boot.
“The Call of Cthulhu,” by H. P. Lovecraft
One of Lovecraft’s most iconic stories, “The Call of Cthulhu” chronicles the adventures of a group of sailors who land on a strange island and unleash an ancient, terrible evil. Their struggle both to escape and to keep their sanity comprises the majority of this work, and Lovecraft captures their utter desperation as they flee from a creature and location that defy all logic and reason. This story unites suspense and despair while taking a darker stance on the well-being of the protagonists in the horror genre; the “good guys” might be able to triumph over the evil facing them, but is it worth it? Unlike most other horror stories where victory, defeat, good, and evil are clearly defined, Lovecraft’s story shows that it may not be so simple.
“The Mysterious Mansion,” by Honoré de Balzac
This isn’t necessarily a horror story, but its plot culminates in a horrific finale. Balzac explores the deception and violence that surround a bout of infidelity while depicting a lot of emotions common in horror stories: fear, despair, false hope, etc. Like any good story with horrific elements, “The Mysterious Mansion” keeps us in suspense until the very end, at which point it soundly slaps us in the face with stark reality. It’s both sad and fascinating, and that morbid combination makes this story a worthwhile and eerie choice for Halloween.
“Vastarien,” by Thomas Ligotti
What happens when mankind strives to access forbidden knowledge? Ligotti’s story answers that question, following an arrogant protagonist’s exploration of ancient tomes and cultures. His quest entertains us because we want to know the end result (knowing all the while that it can’t be good), but the story also succeeds because it takes us to an unfamiliar and unsettling place. We want to stop reading (at least I know I did) because we know something horrible is about to happen, yet at the same time we can’t stop looking. “Vastarien” reels us in and commands our attention until the dark, shocking conclusion, which is why it’s worth a look.
“Last Call for the Sons of Shock,” by David J. Schow
This story is a fun tip-of-the-hat to a past generation and a clever, gritty look at how classic movie monsters would act in the modern era. Schow depicts the struggles (and successes) of Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster as they try to fit in with today’s society, and, while the story isn’t particularly horrific, it captures the spirit of Halloween by expanding the legends of three popular characters. Spirited and grungy, Schow’s story takes the past into the 21st century in an unexpected way; it’s entertaining and slightly unique, and even if it feels too over-the-top, it’s worth reading just for the attempt.
“The Events at Poroth Farm,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Vastarien,” and “Last Call for the Sons of Shock” can be found in American Supernatural Tales, ed. S. T. Joshi (New York: Penguin Books, 2007). “The Haunted House,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Mysterious Mansion” may be found in Great Short Stories of the World, ed. Gerda Charles (New York: Gallery Books, 1990). “The Haunted House” also can be read online. “The Tell-Tale Heart” also may be found in most of Poe’s anthologies, and an online copy is available for reading. “The Mysterious Mansion” also features in most of Balzac’s anthologies.