Victoria Nelson is a writer of fiction, criticism, and memoir. Her books include Gothika and The Secret Life of Puppets, an award-winning study of the supernatural grotesque in Western culture. Nelson is the editor of the newly published Compulsory Games (perfect for fans of Poe, Kafka, and Lovecraft), which brings together stories by Robert Aickman, the master of the “strange story.” As Nelson writes in her introduction to the book, “an Aickman story is a dream you never wake up from.” Here are 10 scary stories recommended by Nelson.
A number of these stories I came across as a teenager in the superlative Modern Library collection Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser, published first in the war year 1944 and many times thereafter. “52 Stories: Over 1000 pages!” the tattered cover of my copy trumpets, and I can testify that every one is a winner. Here I first made the acquaintance of Lovecraft, Blackwood, Saki, Le Fanu, the two Jameses (Henry and M.R.), and many more. Maybe reading great ghost stories is like learning a language: the younger you begin, the more deeply they imprint you?
1. “The Trains” by Robert Aickman
Virtually unknown in the U.S. outside a small coterie of dedicated fans, the British writer Robert Aickman (he died in 1981) is a virtuoso of the sophisticated “strange story,” as he dubbed his tales. The scares in an Aickman story come not from gore or violence but from the way he perversely bends reality right before your startled eyes. Not just once but again and again—and still again, all in the same story. In this little masterpiece of Gothic indirection, two young women stranded on a walking trip in the north of England seek shelter in a remote Victorian mansion adjacent to a train track. There is a handsome host, a menacing servant, a mad aunt who died mysteriously, even a murder, but all this is beside the point. The real scares come from the trains that scream loudly past every few minutes on this “main, important line” in the middle of nowhere and their unseen engineers, who always wave at girls. Curiously, the trains pass by less often on the third floor than on the ground level. As a child, it should be noted, Aickman liked to invent imaginary kingdoms complete with meticulously constructed railroad schedules.
2. “Three Miles Up” by Elizabeth Jane Howard
One of the greatest English ghost stories ever written, this acutely observed, utterly terrifying tale is tied for first place in my affections—and perhaps appropriately, because Howard, better known for her realist novels of upper class English life, was briefly Aickman’s lover in her younger years. Together they produced the joint collection We Are for the Dark in which this tale appears. Two feckless young men rent a narrowboat for a holiday on the inland canals of England. The journey takes a left turn after a violent fight and they acquire an enigmatic young woman companion as the canal stretches on, and on, and on, until—.
3. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H. P. Lovecraft
My all-time favorite Lovecraft story. A young man on holiday takes an unplanned detour to a seaside New England town saturated with the smell of fish. (Said to be based on the real fishing town of Gloucester; Lovecraft not coincidentally loathed that smell.) With glimpses of strange misshapen folk in alleys and doorways, he gradually learns the town’s secret: the infamous “Innsmouth look” shared by the town’s inbred inhabitants—flat noses, bulgy eyes, rough skin. Possibly a tad too long and featuring one of those irritating characters who delivers truckloads of information in an impenetrable dialect, it’s still a masterpiece of atmospheric horror.
4. “Casting the Runes” by M. R. James
A scholar of occult lore is stalked by a sinister supernatural entity and finds the only way to undo the runic curse he’s under is to physically hand it back to the person who cast it. That’s the plot in a nutshell. But the true beauties of this great story by the medievalist and former Eton headmaster lie in the delicate satire and cautionary warning to editors the world over about the perils of rejecting angry authors (especially amateur alchemists!). I sent it once as a joke to my Harvard editor and he didn’t answer. Did that mean the tale scared him as much as it scared me, when I first read it? It was made into the Jacques Tourneur movie Night of the Demon, in which the studio famously had no patience with an invisible stalker and inserted a Muppet-like papier-mache creature to raise the stakes. (Not a bit scary, though I understand a few demented fans actually prefer it.)
5. “The Debutante” by Leonora Carrington
The incomparable British Surrealist painter with the colorful life—daughter of a wealthy industrialist, lover of Max Ernst when she was 19, imprisoned in a mental asylum in Spain, escaping to spend most of the rest of her life in Mexico—is best known for her fantastical art. She also wrote seven volumes of fiction (including the not-to-be-missed alchemical novella The Hearing Trumpet). This story, now available in a new collected edition of Carrington’s work, concerns a reluctant debutante who likes to visit a hyena at the zoo, her only friend. When it comes time for the dreaded ball, the debutante begs the hyena to go in her place, arguing that they are almost the same size, plus people don’t see well in the evening light. To disguise its face, they agree, the hyena must kill her maid and use the maid’s face as a mask—this is only, the debutante assures us, because she hates dancing so much. The hyena kills the maid, goes to the ball wearing her face, and—(Here I am trying to make up for all the other spoilers on this list, but read the other Carrington stories if you already feel this one has been ruined for you. They are also worthy—and scary.)
6. “Ancient Sorceries” by Algernon Blackwood
Only now do I realize this is the twin of “The Shadow over Innsmouth”: A stranger journeys to a remote town where the dark secret the inhabitants hide is that they are part human, part something else. This is exactly what the Englishman Arthur Vezin discovers in the French hill town where he is vacationing. Long ago the inhabitants made a deal with the Devil and as a result they turn into a different sort of creature at night—in this case a species more appealing to Blackwood (and to me) than fish were to Lovecraft; the “Innsmouth look” in this town is distinctly feline. Favorite tagline: “à cause du sommeil et à cause du chats!”
7. “The Wendigo” by Algernon Blackwood
Undoubtedly dated and colonial in its attitudes, this story of a cannibal Algonquin entity that embodies the northern Canadian wilderness still retains its ability to deeply scare. A hunting party of white men penetrates the virgin forest only to have their French Canadian guide swallowed up by it and spit back out uncannily altered. Favorite tagline: the guide’s disembodied wails, heard from high overhead, “Oh! oh! This fiery height! My feet of fire! My burning feet of fire!” He’s the prey of a giant moss-eating invisible creature that thumps and jumps hundreds of feet in the air, smells like a lion, and—do I need to say it?— does not wish humans well.
8. “Carmilla” by Sheridan Le Fanu
This truly subversive erotic tale of a lesbian vampire stalking her innocent prey has Le Fanu’s trademark magisterial pacing that gives the mounting horror a sense of utter inexorability. The charming Elizabeth Karnstein oh so gradually insinuates herself into the affections of the sheltered young narrator until the final consummation—with death by violence the replacement, as in most horror stories, for sexual climax. But the feeling lingers on! Besides the daring undertones for a story published in 1871, one of the great ironies is that Le Fanu originally set his story in the wilds of Ireland. His editor, however, judged that an Eastern European setting provided the right exotic atmosphere, and so County Mayo became the Austro-Hungarian province of Styria. I have always loved the vampire’s anagrammatically changing names: Millarca, Mircalla, Carmilla.
9. “A Terribly Strange Bed” by Wilkie Collins
When my university library got renovated with those space-saving accordion-style stacks on wheels that crank open and shut, it unwittingly opened up the same opportunity for murder that the Victorian Gothic writer Wilkie Collins presented in his tale of a drunken Englishman staying overnight in a room above a Parisian gambling den after he has hit the jackpot. He awakens in the night to discover the top of the canopied four poster he is sleeping in only inches above his face and still coming down. In our stacks—think vertical now instead of horizontal—when the invisible person three rows down impatiently begins cranking, only a sharp cry can avert disaster. And you know how grudges accumulate in university departments!
10. “Shambleau” by C. L. Moore
Technically science fiction, this tale of an interplanetary Medusa by a pioneer female sci fi writer sees Moore’s recurring hero, the space cowboy Northwest Smith, save a raggedy girl from an angry mob. When, with echoes of Prospero and Caliban, he claims her as his own, the mob melts away in contempt and disbelief. That should have warned him! Smith doesn’t get turned to stone; what follows instead is seduction and lurid, gooey sex. Worth the price of admission alone, this over-the-top denouement would surely have sent the squeamish Lovecraft, himself a tentacle guy, screaming into the night.