My favorite “classic” horror stories

Even though I blog about horror fiction of all eras, regular readers of this blog know that I particularly love older stuff.  There’s something about the ghost and horror stories of the late 1800s and early 1900s that is particularly compelling, and so many classic and timeless tales came out of that era.  I was recently pondering those classic stories, and thought it would be worthwhile to put together a list of my favorites, as far as I can remember.

Such a list is necessarily incomplete, and constantly changing: I’m sure I’ll remember a handful of other stories as soon as I post this!  I limit myself to stories that are readily available to read online, so that I’m not a terrible tease.

I’ll start with a simple list of the stories, with links, and then say a bit more about each of them with significant spoilers afterwards.  IF YOU DON’T WANT THINGS SPOILED, READ THE STORIES BEFORE READING MY DESCRIPTIONS! I’ve put the earliest definite date of publication for each story, though several of them may have first appeared several years earlier.

  1. The Upper Berth, F. Marion Crawford (1894).
  2. How Love Came to Professor Guildea, Robert Hichens (1900).
  3. Lukundoo, Edward Lucas White (1927).
  4. Confession, Algernon Blackwood (1921).
  5. The Whisperer in Darkness, H.P. Lovecraft (1931).
  6. Afterward, Edith Wharton (1910).
  7. Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, M.R. James (1904).
  8. The Dead Valley, Ralph Adams Cram (1895).
  9. Mysterious Maisie, Wirt Gerarre (1895).
  10. The Shadows on the Wall, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (1903).
  11. The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe (1842).
  12. The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs (1902).
  13. A Night at an Inn, Lord Dunsany (1916).

Hey — that’s 13 total! A good number!

Though I disagree of H.P. Lovecraft’s views (his racism, for instance), I wholeheartedly agree with his statement at the beginning of his famous essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature:”

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

Though there is certainly a time and place for overt horror — the monster leaping from the shadows, for instance — the stories that affect me the strongest and stay with me the longest are those that leave just the right amount of events unexplained.  This is a delicate balance: explain too much what’s going on, and all the mystery of the story is gone; explain too little, and the story is just a vague mess.  A perfect story, for my taste, gives just enough information to make the reader’s brain struggle, endlessly, for a resolution and explanation that will never come.

Pretty much every story in my list does this to a significant degree.  But let me be a bit more specific about each one.

The Upper Berth, F. Marion Crawford.  I consider this to be one of the greatest ghost stories of all time.  If it is a ghost story.  The “thing” of the story has a pattern of behavior, seemingly supernatural powers, and a preferred “haunt,” but it is also a creature of terrible physical strength and evidently murderous intent.  Crawford builds the tension slowly in his tale.  We start with apprehension among the crew of the cursed ship Kamtschatka, the abrupt disappearance of the (living) occupant of the upper berth, and a porthole that will not stay closed.  It culminates with an attempt by the narrator and the ship’s captain to get to the bottom of the mystery, an attempt that nearly costs them their lives.  Their very rational attempt to understand the phenomenon makes their failure that much more horrifying in the end.

And the ending?  The rather apathetic tone that the narrator takes in the last two paragraphs makes the last two sentences the most memorable of any ghost story that I know.  No passion is needed; the matter-of-fact statement makes it seem that much more credible:

Well, do you want to hear any more? There is nothing more. That is the end of my story. The carpenter carried out his scheme of running half a dozen four-inch screws through the door of one hundred and five; and if ever you take a passage in the Kamtschatka, you may ask for a berth in that state-room. You will be told that it is engaged—yes—it is engaged by that dead thing.

I finished the trip in the surgeon’s cabin. He doctored my broken arm, and advised me not to “fiddle about with ghosts and things” any more. The captain was very silent, and never sailed again in that ship, though it is still running. And I will not sail in her either. It was a very disagreeable experience, and I was very badly frightened, which is a thing I do not like. That is all. That is how I saw a ghost—if it was a ghost. It was dead, anyhow.

How Love Came to Professor Guildea, Robert Hichens.  This story has previously helped to inspire an entire blog post on how unwanted love can be a powerful theme in horror.  The idea of being loved, desired and smothered by a creature that cannot be sated or dissuaded was awful enough in Hichens’ era, but is even more terrible in the era of cyber stalking and harassment.  Professor Guildea, a man of reason, is completely unprepared for unwanted affections of a ghost that seems demented and mentally disabled.  This story is quite long, and Hichens tells a story that I can only describe as a “slow burn.”  We don’t really understand the true horror of the situation until very late in the tale.  Earlier, we are only given hints as to the nature of the being haunting him:

The parrot presently withdrew its head, as if the coaxing finger had been lifted from it, and its pronounced air of acute physical enjoyment faded into one of marked attention and alert curiosity. Pulling itself up by the bars it climbed again upon its perch, sidled to the left side of the cage, and began apparently to watch something with profound interest. It bowed its head oddly, paused for a moment, then bowed its head again. Father Murchison found himself conceiving — from this elaborate movement of the head — a distinct idea of a personality. The bird’s proceedings suggested extreme sentimentality combined with that sort of weak determination which is often the most persistent. Such weak determination is a very common attribute of persons who are partially idiotic. Father Murchison was moved to think of these poor creatures who will often, so strangely and unreasonably, attach themselves with persistence to those who love them least. Like many priests, he had had some experience of them, for the amorous idiot is peculiarly sensitive to the attraction of preachers. This bowing movement of the parrot recalled to his memory a terrible, pale woman who for a time haunted all churches in which he ministered, who was perpetually endeavouring to catch his eye, and who always bent her head with an obsequious and cunningly conscious smile when she did so. The parrot went on bowing, making a short pause between each genuflection, as if it waited for a signal to be given that called into play its imitative faculty.

In the end, Professor Guildea is not killed by a malevolent specter, but by his own inability to be accepting and kind.

Lukundoo, Edward Lucas White.  This is a wonderful example of a story that isn’t about what it originally seems.  At first, it seems a classic — and possibly racist — story of a witch doctor’s curse falling upon an arrogant European that dared cross him.  And the curse is a horrible one, involving a “body horror” that I consider to be decades ahead of its time in pure nastiness.  But Ralph Stone’s curse comes from a source that is much more personal, and chilling in the sheer hatred that birthed it.  We learn about Stone’s travel to Africa in the midst of social scandal almost as an afterthought at the very beginning of the story; it is such a natural background to give that it hardly seems relevant to the greater narrative until the very end:

“You speak all tongues?” he asked quickly.

And the mergent minikin replied in sudden English:

“Yea, verily, all that you speak,” putting out its microscopic tongue, writhing its lips and wagging its head from side to side. We could see the thready ribs on its exiguous flanks heave as if the thing breathed.

“Has she forgiven me?” Stone asked in a muffled strangle.

“Not while the moss hangs from the cypresses,” the head squeaked. “Not while the stars shine on Lake Pontchartrain will she forgive.”

And then Stone, all with one motion, wrenched himself over on his side. The next instant he was dead.

Confession, Algernon Blackwood.  Blackwood is perhaps best known for his overtly supernatural stories, such as The Willows, one of the first tales of “cosmic horror” and a major inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft.  But it is “Confession” that hits me the hardest.  This story of a war veteran, suffering from (what we would now call) PTSD, lost in a thick fog in London, is a masterpiece of ambiguity and mystery.  Is it a supernatural story?  A murder story?  A dream?  A delusion?  Something else?  I can think of at least four different, equally viable, explanations for the story even without imagining it was all a dream.  This ambiguity takes my idea of a “delicate balance” and essentially gives it the finger!  It’s not that the pieces don’t fit together, it’s that they fit together perfectly in so many ways.  The final paragraph doubles, even triples down on the confusion.

“You have no hat,” mentioned the voice behind him. “If you’ll wait a moment I’ll get you one of mine. You need not trouble to return it.” And the doctor passed him, going into the hall. There was a sound of tearing paper. O’Reilly left the house a moment later with a hat upon his head, but it was not till he reached the Tube station half an hour afterwards that he realized it was his own.

The Whisperer in Darkness, H.P. Lovecraft.  I would say that, in general, Lovecraft is not a subtle writer.  He has a gift of making melodrama convincing and terrifying that almost nobody can replicate convincingly, but the monsters in his stories jump, crawl, skitter, slither or lumber off the page at you.  In “The Whisperer in Darkness,” however, we never see the monsters first-hand — or, that is, the narrator never sees them first-hand.  Then, we get the increasingly disturbing and erratic correspondence between the narrator and Henry Wentworth Akeley, who learns more and more about the monstrous, otherworldy invaders residing not far from his remote rural home.

The most terrifying part for me, however, comes when the correspondence changes abruptly.  Whereas Akeley has been terrified of the aliens stalking him, he suddenly changes tone and welcomes the narrator to meet with them at his home:

You will probably call this raving at first, Wilmarth, but in time you will appreciate the titanic opportunity I have stumbled upon. I want you to share as much of it as is possible, and to that end must tell you thousands of things that won’t go on paper. In the past I have warned you not to come to see me. Now that all is safe, I take pleasure in rescinding that warning and inviting you.

Can’t you make a trip up here before your college term opens? It would be marvelously delightful if you could. Bring along the phonograph record and all my letters to you as consultative data – we shall need them in piecing together the whole tremendous story. You might bring the Kodak prints, too, since I seem to have mislaid the negatives and my own prints in all this recent excitement. But what a wealth of facts I have to add to all this groping and tentative material – and what a stupendous device I have to supplement my additions!

I like to think of such scenarios in horror fiction as “impossible situations.”  What to believe, or not believe?  What would I do if I were faced with similar correspondence?  Some of the greatest horror leaves you with the abrupt realization of how fucked you (or the narrator) truly are.

The tale also ends without ever explicitly stating the fate of Akeley, though it leaves no doubt what that fate is, and no doubt at the horror of it.  When I hear the phrase “fate worse than death,” Henry Wentworth Akeley immediately comes to mind.

Afterward, Edith Wharton.  Some time ago, I figured out that the key to coming up with a good surprise “twist” in a story is to set up the details of the twist long before anyone even thinks of looking for one.  This is part of what works in Lukundoo, as we noted earlier.  In Afterward, however, Edith Wharton turns this strategy on its head, introducing a haunting where we expect there to be a surprise.  Nevertheless, the impact of the final horror is not lessened at all for the expectation, and the haunting is even worse than one imagined.

“Oh, my God! I sent him to Ned — I told him where to go! I sent him to this room!” she screamed out.

She felt the walls of the room rush toward her, like inward falling ruins; and she heard Parvis, a long way off, as if through the ruins, crying to her, and struggling to get at her. But she was numb to his touch, she did not know what he was saying. Through the tumult she heard but one clear note, the voice of Alida Stair, speaking on the lawn at Pangbourne.

“You won’t know till afterward,” it said. “You won’t know till long, long afterward.”

Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, M.R. James.  James is one of the true masters of the ghost story, and has penned a remarkable number of classics.  “Oh, Whistle” always stands out as one of the most memorable and bizarre of his works, featuring a ghost of the most unconventional sort.  As a master, James sets the stage slowly, with an ominous dream, a strange antique whistle, and a mysteriously unmade bed.  When the specter makes its definitive appearance, as an animated bed sheet, James really describes its unnatural behavior and form in excruciating detail:

Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realized, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion. Turning half away from him, it became suddenly conscious of the bed he had just left, and darted towards it, and bent over and felt the pillows in a way which made Parkins shudder as he had never in his life thought it possible. In a very few moments it seemed to know that the bed was empty, and then, moving forward into the area of light and facing the window, it showed for the first time what manner of thing it was.

Parkins, who very much dislikes being questioned about it, did once describe something of it in my hearing, and I gathered that what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen. What expression he read upon it he could not or would not tell, but that the fear of it went nigh to maddening him is certain.

A nice point that James makes at the very end of the story also sticks with me: the idea that the ghost, terrifying though it was, likely was not a danger other than its power to inspire terror.

The Dead Valley, Ralph Adams Cram.  Another very effective form of horror storytelling is to channel literal nightmares into written form.  My favorite horror author and inspiration, Ramsey Campbell, is a master of this, and reading some of his stories can truly make me feel like I’m going insane.  Cram’s “The Dead Valley” is also a perfect example of this technique.  The valley is an inexplicable, fog-filled barren place where one can wander in circles endlessly, while death inexorably approaches.  And in its center, is a tree of death:

“In the midst of the basin, perhaps a mile and a half away, the level expanse was broken by a great dead tree, rising leafless and gaunt into the air. Without a moment’s hesitation I started down into the valley and made for this goal. Every particle of fear seemed to have left me, and even the valley itself did not look so very terrifying. At all events, I was driven by an overwhelming curiosity, and there seemed to be but one thing in the world to do,—to get to that Tree! As I trudged along over the hard earth, I noticed that the multitudinous voices of birds and insects had died away. No bee or butterfly hovered through the air, no insects leaped or crept over the dull earth. The very air itself was stagnant.

“As I drew near the skeleton tree, I noticed the glint of sunlight on a kind of white mound around its roots, and I wondered curiously. It was not until I had come close that I saw its nature.

“All around the roots and barkless trunk was heaped a wilderness of little bones. Tiny skulls of rodents and of birds, thousands of them, rising about the dead tree and streaming off for several yards in all directions, until the dreadful pile ended in isolated skulls and scattered skeletons. Here and there a larger bone appeared,—the thigh of a sheep, the hoofs of a horse, and to one side, grinning slowly, a human skull.

Mysterious Maisie, Wirt Gerrare.  This story is a particularly odd one.  The titular spirit, “Mysterious Maisie,” is not the real terror of the story.  The real terror is the mysterious goings-on of the masters of the house, their imprisonment of the housekeeper/narrator Laura, and WHAT ARE THEY PLANNING TO DO WITH HER AND THE SUBHUMAN BEAST THAT THEY BROUGHT INTO THE HOME?

A thing that they brought here, half human, half — I know not what.  I was in the front room downstairs when it arrived.  It stood on two feet splayed outside the front gate when I first saw it, and its hand was grasped by a sad-looking, demure little man, with white hair, and wearing large blue spectacles.  Its face was hidden by a dark silk pockethandkerchief tucked in under the edge of a heavy cloth cap, and it made uncouth noises, and tugged at the bars of the gate like a wild beast in its cage.

Though the story ends less horrifying than it could have, the implication is that the fate Laura avoided was suffered by Maisie.

The Shadows on the Wall, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.  Wilkins Freeman’s story is a perfect tale of a family being torn apart by forces beyond their comprehension.  The mundane setting highlights the horror of the shadow on the wall, which defies any rational attempt to explain.

Henry Glynn, evidently reasoning that the source of the strange shadow must be between the table on which the lamp stood and the wall, was making systematic passes and thrusts with an old sword which had belonged to his father all over and through the intervening space. Not an inch was left unpierced. He seemed to have divided the space into mathematical sections. He brandished the sword with a sort of cold fury and calculation; the blade gave out flashes of light, the shadow remained unmoved. Mrs. Brigham, watching, felt herself cold with horror.

When the ending comes, it is not a surprise, but the inevitability of the fates of everyone is its own horror.

The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe.  Poe’s “Masque” is another story that has the tone and aspects of a nightmare: the multiple colored rooms, the endless decadent party, the hubris of the party-goers, the insane costumes.  “The Masque,” however, also captures perfectly the merciless nature of ancient religious parables.  And the last paragraph, and the last sentence in particular, are absolutely spellbinding.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs.  There have been many horror stories about wishes, but none has been done with the subtlety of Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.”  We never directly experience the worst of the horrors hinted at in the story, including the resurrected son of the old couple.  For me, the perfect touch of subtlety comes early on, in the old soldier’s terse description of the paw.

His manners were so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter had jarred somewhat.

“Well, why don’t you have three, sir?” said Herbert White cleverly.

The soldier regarded him the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth.”I have,” he said quietly, and his blotchy face whitened.

“And did you really have the three wishes granted?” asked Mrs. White.

“I did,” said the seargent-major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth.

That image — of the soldier drinking, with the glass clinking against his teeth, always stays with me.

Jacobs wisely leaves us to imagine the worst parts of the story.  What happened to the seargent-major?  What happened to the man who held the paw before him?  What did the son look like when he came back from the grave?

A Night at an Inn, Lord Dunsany.  I noted earlier, that “The Masque of the Red Death” works as a modern-day parable; I don’t think any author, however, was better at creating new, powerful and disturbing parable’s than Lord Dunsany.  I’ve blogged in the past about his wonderful Pegana stories, in which he created his own fictional pantheon and mythology.  It is perhaps ironic that Dunsany, an atheist, proved so good at writing such tales.  His story “The Men of Yarnith” is one of the most inspiring and moving things I’ve ever read.

Dunsany also wrote a few macabre plays and, though it is set in modern times, “A Night at an Inn” is still a perfect horror parable.  The Toff, a brilliant criminal mastermind who is always one step ahead of his opponents, fails to predict the consequences when his crew steals the jeweled eye of a religious idol.  Though he and his crew kill the priest who come hunting them, they are unprepared for the heathen god itself to come collect its eye.

[Enter a hideous Idol. It is blind and gropes its way. It gropes its way to the ruby and picks it up and screws it into a socket in the forehead.]

[Sniggers still weeps softly; the rest stare in horror. The Idol steps out, not groping. Its steps move off then stops.]

THE TOFF.
O great heavens!

ALBERT.
[In a childish, plaintive voice.]

What is it, Toffy?

BILL.
Albert, it is that obscene idol [in a whisper] come from India.

ALBERT.
It is gone.

BILL.
It has taken its eye.

SNIGGERS.
We are saved.

Off, a VOICE.
[With outlandish accent.]

Meestaire William Jones, Able Seaman.

[The Toff has never spoken, never moved. He only gazes stupidly in horror.]

BILL.
Albert, Albert, what is this?

[He rises and walks out. One moan is heard. Sniggers goes to window. He falls back sickly.]

ALBERT.
[In a whisper.]

What has happened?

SNIGGERS.
I have seen it. I have seen it. O I have seen it. [He returns to table.]

We don’t see what happens to the Toff and his crew; we don’t need to see it.  What we can imagine is much worse.

**********************************************

These are (some) of my favorite classic horror stories of all time.  Do you have any of your own that I’ve missed?  Feel free to mention them in the comments!

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2 Responses to My favorite “classic” horror stories

  1. Justin says:

    “Amour Dure” by Vernon Lee
    “The Body Snatcher” by Robert Louis Stevenson

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