If someone asked me what the best short horror stories ever written are, I’d definitely mention The Monkey’s Paw, Lost Hearts and The tell-tale heart. Since Halloween is approaching and I’m re-reading some of my favourites, I’ve decided to compile a list of 10 lesser-known tales that really stuck with me.
1. Miss Hooting’s Legacy (Joan Aiken)
Miss Hooting had left instructions that her coffin was not to be covered over until November 1st, and the vicar had very strong objections to this. ‘Specially as the coffin was made of glass,’ Rosie reported.
The Methuen Book of Sinister stories was my companion during many autumn nights when I was growing up, even though some of the stories were definitely too disturbing for a nine-year-old girl. One of my favourites was this Armitage family tale, set in a traditional English village also inhabited by mythological creatures, witches and sinister mechanical slaves.
2. Red as blood (Tanith Lee)
Bianca smiled radiantly. Her teeth were bright as sharp bone needles. “Come,” said the Witch Queen, “come, Bianca. I will show you my magic mirror.” “Please, Mamma,” said Bianca softly, “I do not like mirrors.”
I first read Red as Blood when I was holidaying in my family house in the mountains of Leon. It was a damp afternoon in late summer, but the tale’s sharp, icy cold prose transported me to the depths of winter. Lee’s words seem to yank the subtext of the tale of Snow White, twisting it and exhibiting it in all its cruel beauty. Ever since then, I’ve never thought of the original tale in the same way.
3. The Terror of Blue John Gap (Arthur Conan Doyle)
A fetid breath seemed to ooze from the black depths into which I peered. Could it indeed be possible that some nameless thing, some dreadful presence, was lurking down yonder?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I shared this fascination with my grandpa, who let me borrow his leather bound Conan Doyle collection, which I inherited when he passed away. This is how I discovered Conan Doyle had also written some Tales of Horror and Mystery. What attracted me first to this story was the ridiculous ring to its title in Spanish, El Espanto de Juan Azul, an awful translation from a bygone era. But Blue John sounded so much better that I gave it a go. The threat of a nameless horror that lurks in the darkness and that is able to destroy even the strongest man haunted me for a long time.
4. The music of Eric Zahn (H. P. Lovecraft)
My room was on the fifth story; the only inhabited room there, since the house was almost empty. On the night I arrived I heard strange music from the peaked garret overhead, and the next day asked old Blandot about it. He told me it was an old German viol-player, a strange dumb man who signed his name as Erich Zann, and who played evenings in a cheap theatre orchestra (…)
There are better stories by Lovecraft, but the image of Zahn, old and tormented, trying to silence God knows what abominations with the music of his violin really spoke to me. For a few years, I was a violin student too, and I used my music, like all of us do, to find comfort when things weren’t going well.
5. Philomel cottage (Agatha Christie)
Three times since her marriage she had dreamed the same dream. The environment differed, but the main facts were always the same. She saw her husband lying dead and Dick Windyford standing over him, and she knew clearly and distinctly that his was the hand which had dealt the fatal blow.
I’d read many Agatha Christie whodunnits before I found this tale, and the ending made me marvel. You could perhaps argue that it’s suspense, not horror, but the eerie, fatalistic atmosphere makes it a Gothic romance.
6. What was it? (Fitz James O’Brien)
(…) I had one arm firmly clasped round a breathing, panting, corporeal shape, my other hand gripped with all its strength a throat as warm, and apparently fleshly, as my own; and yet, with this living substance in my grasp, with its body pressed against my own, and all in the bright glare of a large jet of gas, I absolutely beheld nothing!
This tale was included in an old paperback that belonged to my dad and that I claimed years later, thirsty for horror. The title intrigued me, and as soon as I read the first lines, I was taken: “It is, I confess, with considerable diffidence that I approach the strange narrative which I am about to relate. The events which I purpose detailing are of so extraordinary and unheard-of a character that I am quite prepared to meet with an unusual amount of incredulity and scorn.”
7. The room in the tower (E. F. Benson)
It is probable that everybody who is at all a constant dreamer has had at least one experience of an event or a sequence of circumstances which have come to his mind in sleep being subsequently realized in the material world.
I suppose I am fond of the recurrent nightmare trope. This foreboding and hypnotic tale always leaves me breathless.
8. The Mannikin (Robert Bloch)
“More blood, Simon. I want more.”
The tale of Simon Maglore, slowly consumed by some unnamed horror, has one of the best climaxes in horror.
9. Dress of white silk (Richard Matheson)
And she says I should burn it up but I loved her so. And she cries about the dress.
My best friend and I were obsessed with this story, the first by Richard Matheson I read, and still probably my favourite, perhaps because of the peculiar voice of the narrator.
10. The feather pillow (Horacio Quiroga)
She would not allow anyone to touch the bed, nor plump up her pillows. Her nightly terrors were now advancing in the shape of monsters who would drag themselves to the bed, and clamber laboriously up the eiderdown.
Radically different to the other stories I’ve included, but terrifying nonetheless.