This week I’ve been reading supernatural stories for Hallowe’en, and trying to whittle down a shortlist of my ten scariest short stories ever. So I haven’t slept much this week, and will be glad when this post is written and I can go back to reading romance novels :)
So here they are – in no particular order – my ten scariest short stories ever.
Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, by M.R. James
M.R. James is the master of the ghost story. In this particular story, a rather pompous professor goes to stay in a B&B at the seaside, where he is researching into some ancient ruins. Whilst walking on the beach he comes across a whistle, which bears the inscription ‘Oh whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad’. The professor blows the whistle, and thinks nothing of it. Later, he thinks he sees a dark figure flapping after him as he walks home on the beach. Over the course of the professor’s holiday, the figure gradually gets closer and closer. Tension mounts in a terrifying way. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying the story doesn’t end happily.
The Shout, by Robert Graves
I love Robert Graves’ short stories because they are all totally weird, and yet he insists they are based on truth. In The Shout, a guy meets a patient at a cricket match in a mental hospital. Whilst they’re watching the game, the patient tells him he has been locked up because he has a shout that can kill.
There’s an almost fairytale quality to the supernatural element in this story, and it’s one of my favourite spooky stories. The patient comes across as a powerful and frightening man. This story was made into a film with Alan Bates and John Hurt in the ’70s
The Hound of Death, by Agatha Christie
The title says it all! I didn’t realise until recently that Agatha Christie had written a collection of horror stories. This one is very creepy. It’s about a nun with strange powers, who is in a nursing home after the second world war. She is a survivor of a incident in which several German soldiers were struck by lightning. All that’s left of them is a powder mark in the shape of a giant hound. (You just know bad things are going to happen when the author says “hound” instead of “dog”.)
The Signal-Man, by Charles Dickens
This story was recommended to me by lots of people, and I’m not surprised. It’s one of the scariest stories ever. A railway signalman works alone in his signal box at the entrance to a tunnel. If there’s danger on the line, his fellow signalmen alert him, and a bell rings in his office. But three times, the bell rings of its own accord, and every time it’s a premonition of something terrible happening. By the time the bell rings for the third time, both reader and signalman are petrified.
The Signalman was made into a film for the BBC in the 70s, and you can watch it here – if you like being scared witless.
Don’t Look Now, by Daphne du Maurier
It was hard to choose between The Birds or this short story of du Maurier’s, but in the end I chose Don’t Look Now. It’s about a couple on holiday in Venice, where they are being followed by two sisters. Oh, and there’s also a serial killer on the loose. If you think you know this story from Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant film version, with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, I’d still urge you to read the book. It’s one of the most chilling I’ve ever read.
Of course Poe has to be on this list. The only trouble is, choosing which story, amongst the many brilliant stories he’s written, is the most frightening. After deliberating for ages between this one and The Tell-Tale Heart, I finally chose The Pit and the Pendulum. It’s about a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition who is imprisoned in a pitch-black cell with rats, a pendulum in the form of a swinging scythe dropping gradually towards him, red hot walls and a terrible pit. What sort of a mind could think up these ingredients? It’s pretty damn scary.
You can read it for free here.
The Man with the Nose, by Rhoda Broughton (from a collection called Twilight Stories)
This is a classic Gothic story by a Victorian writer. I’ve only just discovered Roda Broughton, and would like to read more. Her dialogue is funny, which is an unusual fit in a scary story. And this particular story is quite scary! A young couple are on honeymoon in Europe. The wife confesses she was once hynotised, and it was a terrifying experience. During the honeymoon, she swears blind there is a shadowy man with a “prominent nose…very finely chiselled; the nostrils very much cut out” who keeps following them. Her husband doesn’t believe her. He makes a big mistake. Again, there is no happy ending :(
The Monkey’s Paw, by W.W. Jacobs
This is about a couple who are given a monkey’s paw by army officer who’s just returned from India. The officer tells them the paw has the ability to grant three wishes – but that the last person who had it ended up so struck down with horror he literally wished for death.
The couple decide to make a wish…with horrific and tragic consequences.
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
This is a classic chiller about a governess and the boy and girl in her charge. The governess is convinced that the household is haunted by her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and another servant, Peter Quint. Both these characters embody evil, and the governess suspects that the children are under their sway.
The whole story is permeated with evil, and right up until the end the reader is never sure what is truth, and what just suspicion and fear. I don’t think you’ll be surprised to know that the ending is quite distressing.
Where Are You Going, Where Have you Been?, Joyce Carol Oates
This is a genuinely creepy story. It’s about a typical teenage girl, out with her friends at the mall, flirting with boys and not telling her parents what she’s getting up to. One day she sees a strange guy there, in a gold convertible. A few weeks later, when the girl is alone at home, the guy turns up at her house in his car, with his creepy friend. There’s something supernaturally spooky about the evil guys, and I think it’s the strange friend in the back of the car that really makes this story so frightening…
I was recommended lots of stories before putting this list together. Stephen King was a huge recommendation. I read Carrie, but I didn’t think it was as scary as any of the others on my list. I still have a few more Stephen King’s to read, though, and am looking forward to being scared.
I also have Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin, still to read. I’ve heard many people say how frightening this book is, but I didn’t include it here because it’s just slightly too long to fit in the short story/novella category. I’m looking forward to being terrified by it, though.
And if short stories don’t hold enough terror for you, try the Guardian’s selection of the top ten horror novels. That should thoroughly drain the blood from your body.
How about you? Did you like my selection? What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Any recommendations – or any comments at all – please let me know. I’d love to hear from you!