This year, as part of our Halloween celebration, I asked a whole bunch of the greatest living horror writers to tell us about the three SCARIEST books or stories that they’ve ever read. The thinking here is, if something scares THESE folks, it is probably awesome. Many authors have been kind enough to send in their picks, which will be coming out in these final days before All Hallows. I can’t wait to share them!
Some of the writer-folk put together entire essays. Today’s heaping helping of horrific hints come from a pair of very different, though equally brilliant writers, Daniel Mills and Michael Wehunt…
Like many — if not most — horror writers I am rarely scared by what I read. Challenged, yes, often disturbed, but almost never frightened. There are, however, exceptions. Here are a few:
“A Warning to the Curious” by M.R. James. This is the greatest tale by the ghost story’s greatest practitioner and also, perhaps, his most archetypal creation. In “Warning” we encounter the legend of a lost crown and its spectral guardian through the tragic story of young Paxton, who meets his end against an English landscape that is at once idyllic and desolate. It is a terrific and instantly absorbing read but what lingers – what gives the tale its true power to frighten – is a sense of menacing violence which permeates the story and finds its ultimate fulfillment in the story’s final image. “I only glanced once at his face.”
In “The Red Lodge” by H. Russell Wakefield, a family rents out the titular residence only to be menaced by an oppressive atmosphere and mysterious puddles of river-slime – to say nothing of the “green monkey” which terrorizes their young child. The setup reads more than a little like a contemporary haunted house film but the monster in the river is far more unsettling than anything you’re likely to encounter in a movie if only because it remains half-glimpsed and ultimately unknown.
But “The Room in the Tower” by E.F. Benson is the one story which has frightened me more than any other. I first read the tale when I was working in Acadia National Park and stayed up late to finish the story by candlelight during an island-wide power outage. This was not, perhaps, the wisest decision I have made and the night which followed proved rather less than restful. “Room” introduces us to a young man who has been haunted throughout his entire life by a recurring nightmare: he visits an unfamiliar house, meets a Mrs Stone, and is invited to stay in the tower room. Many years later, he chances to visit the house from his dream and is (of course!) offered the room in the tower. I won’t spoil what happens in the night — there is, naturally, a thunderstorm — except to say that Julia Stone remains, for me, the most terrifying creation in all horror fiction.
MICHAEL WEHUNT: THREE STORIES THAT CRAWLED INSIDE ME AND NEVER LEFT
I can find a lot to admire in most good fiction. I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt, if the author excels at one or two elements of story. And while what I look for varies a bit from genre to genre, I’m very finicky and rarely let something slide in my own secret estimation simply because a book or story is supposed to be a “yarn” or “page-turner.” Sure, I love Miss Marple and certainly don’t visit with her for rich imagery and poetic language, in much the same way I don’t read Carson McCullers in search of thrilling action set pieces. But I’ll think about McCullers long after I’m done reading; I carry her with me, and that’s the key.
With horror and weird fiction, I make no exception. The only true, ringing difference (and at its best, it’s not much of a difference) is this: I want to be unsettled. I want something to get under my skin in an uncanny, it’s-right-behind-me way. So little scary fiction truly is scary, but at least I have those other reading vices of mine to fall back on: artfully constructed prose, depth of character, little insights into being human that burst from the page in wonderful, terrible ways. If I have those, I’m happy enough. And sometimes a horror story doesn’t want to be scary. Sometimes it wants to be something else beautifully, cleverly hiding inside a dark body. But the Unsettling: when that rare, visceral fright is molded by a master, that’s when I bring out the pedestals.
Here are the three stories on the top pedestal. Each of them could be my Rosebud.
“—30—” by Laird Barron
The only story that has ever made my skin crawl. Two wildlife researchers, former lovers with a push and pull dynamic that is frightening on its own, are stationed in a wilderness that was once the home of a cult. Barron packs more creepy things into this story than most great horror novels manage, but it’s the way he writes the creepy that is profound and peerless. No one does dread better.
“each thing i show you is a piece of my death” by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer
Renowned horror/weird author Gemma Files recently won the Shirley Jackson Award for her excellent novel, Experimental Film. That novel did not spring from “each thing i show you is a piece of my death,” the story she wrote with her husband several years ago, but there’s a spiritual connection as well as a small, literal one. The short story is deliciously creepy, putting a different, expert spin on the epistolary structure, viral videos, and the found-footage genre. The relentless slow build of Background Man, the video shot in a storage unit…this story is wonderful and has fiercely stayed with me these past five years.
“Brushdogs” by Stephen Graham Jones
Originally featured in the Laird Barron tribute anthology The Children of Old Leech, this story was an oblique tribute to Barron’s mode of horror, one less concerned with playing in the Old Leech cosmos. But Jones wonderfully taps into that under-the-skin dread, that synapse thrill as a father and son encounter something seemingly mundane in the forest. Jones himself is a prolific master, one of our treasures, and the way he seamlessly fuses himself with Barron here is brilliant. I can’t recommend this story enough.
Discover more about Daniel Mills’s sinister historical fiction at his website. His collection THE LORD CAME AT TWILIGHT is a total knockout–truly unlike anything else out there, both old fashined and very modern at the same time. “One of a kind” gets bandied about a lot, but in this case it’s true…
Likewise, to find out more about that Wehunt kid, check out his virtual domicile and then read his debut collection, GREENER PASTURES. He’s like the bastard love child of Richard Matheson and Lucius Shepard, with really weird uncles…